Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Density and parking: W.W.J.J.(Jane Jacobs) D.?

View of proposed development from Caswell Road. Image from documents filed with City of Charlotte
I've spent the last few days re-reading parts of the writings of Jane Jacobs, in advance of a talk I'm giving Thursday in the NoDa neighborhood (6 p.m. at the Evening Muse, free and open to the public) as well as the 100th anniversary of her birth May 4, 1916. (See an inspiring list of Jane's 100th events at

So when I read about neighborhood opposition -- and more significant, opposition from District 1 City Council member Patsy Kinsey -- to a proposed development in the Elizabeth neighborhood on the basis of density and a worry about parking, I was primed to consult Jacobs' writing. WWJJD? What Would Jane Jacobs Do? Spoiler: I think she would be OK with the development but would be more worried about what she called "the self-destruction of diversity."

Ely Portillo's article in The Charlotte Observer lays out some of the opposition. The proposal (see the rezoning documents here) is for a 60-foot-high development of 123 apartments, with 15,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, at a triangular corner at East Seventh Street and North Caswell Road.

Portillo quotes neighborhood association member Melanie Sizemore saying that while developers and the neighborhood have worked together they haven't resolved all the issues. Two big sticking points: density and parking. They're afraid the number of proposed parking spots isn't generous enough and will mean congestion in the surrounding neighborhood.

Today, Charlotte Agenda writer Jason Thomas, referring to remarks at Monday's public hearing, opines that it shows "just how lost our City Council is." (See "The City Council is making baffling decisions on urban planning.") Thomas praises it as beautifully
designed and well-thought-out and compares it favorably to other recent apartment projects the council approved, including one right across Seventh Street, that he says are uglier.

But the supposed need for more parking? Listen to Jane Jacobs, a brilliant observer of and thinker about cities: "The destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building," she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This is in the book's introduction, in which she excoriates planners for cluelessness and for oblivion to reality as they blindly follow theories of how cities should work and ignore evidence that their theories are flawed. "... Planners ... do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow -- with or without automobiles."

One of those failed planner theories is that density in cities is bad. Jacobs' book proves the opposite: It's essential to a healthy, functioning city.  But during the 20th century the "density is bad" theory embedded itself in the minds of well-meaning, "progressive" planners and neighborhood advocates. So did the idea that traffic congestion and lack of parking will kill a neighborhood. Jacobs' observations showed how that's another fallacy. In recent decades many planners themselves have abandoned the "density is bad" theory. But it's clearly foremost in some people's minds.

(An aside: Jacobs' assumed that cities would have demolition protection for older buildings and the courage to impose height limits, which are tools used to protect the needed diversity of building age and scale. But demolition protection and height limits are lacking in Charlotte.)

Is Thomas fair to expect all City Council members to be urban designers or planners? That would be nice, but it's unrealistic. That's why the city pays a whole department of people to advise them on such matters and to ensure that city ordinances produce the kind of development the city's plans call for.

Quick quiz:

1. Are the plans what they should be, or are they vague feel-good statements?
2. Do the ordinances produce what the plans call for?

OK, you score 100. The policies set forth in many of the plans are vague ("Protect and enhance the character of existing neighborhoods."). And the ordinances don't produce what the plans call for. The city hired consultants (Clarion) who told them so. Three years ago. Moving at a pace that makes glacial melting look rapid, the city is only now starting work on rewriting its zoning ordinance.

Why not, in the interim, apply a few patches for areas that need them? I'm thinking of places facing rapid demand for new buildings, where the old multifamily zoning allows developments that deface the sidewalk experience: South End, Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood for starters. Patches could be some tailored-to-the-area zoning overlays, or they could boost the urban design standards in a few of the zoning categories such as MUDD and TOD.

But back to Jane Jacobs. What was that about the self-destruction of diversity? She noticed that successful, popular neighborhoods with a diverse set of buildings, businesses, homes and uses tended over time to lose that blend:“Self-destruction of diversity is caused by success, not by failure. … The process is a continuation of the same economic processes that led to the success itself.”

As a neighborhood becomes more popular, she wrote, the new development will tend to be whatever is most profitable. That's how capitalism works. Over time, the neighborhood loses its diversity. "So many people want to live in the locality that it becomes profitable to build, in excessive and devastating quantity (emphasis mine), for those who can pay the most. These are usually childless people, and today they are not simply people who can pay the most in general, but people who can or will pay the most for the smallest space.”

Does that sound familiar?