Dec 27 2009

Visiting Oakland, CA

A couple months ago, I visited a friend of mine in Oakland, CA. This trip was a bit different from other visits I have made to metropolitan areas. Usually I stay in a hotel, and visit the touristy spots and roam around in a rental car usually looking specific neighborhoods or development projects. This time, I stayed with my friend and did all of our touring using public transportation, or our own feet to get around. One day, we walked around a significant portion of Berkeley, visiting the campus, The Berkeley Rose Garden, and neighborhoods in between. I will have to admit, while I have been to the bay area several times over the years, I have never spent any real time in Oakland or Berkeley. Of course, I have heard all the rumors about how Oakland is rough and tumble, the gangs, the high crime rate, etc. I admit, from the places I have lived, I have been pretty sheltered, not really exposed to a wide range of diversity of ethnicities or lifestyles. Oakland and Berkeley are very diverse cities, having huge variety of ethnic populations. Touring the UC Berkeley campus I quickly figured out that being a white male, I was a distinct minority. Not that this bothered me at all mind you, it just opened my eyes some more. One thing that I did really appreciate though, was the overall tolerance and acceptance of not only the diversity, but for different lifestyles. I saw openly gay and lesbian couples roaming around, mixed race couples, and about everything else too. I found it all to be refreshing and enjoyable. In my opinion all communities should be this way.

Oakland and Berkeley both have a significant population of older working class homes, of all vintages. Oakland also has one of the oldest and strongest historic preservation programs in the country. Over the coming days, I will be posting several pics and descriptions of what I saw, both old and new. These posts will be organized by subject, so it will be easier to find images.

Sep 26 2009

New Urbanism in the Mountains – South Main

This summer I had the pleasure of being able to tour South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado. I have heard about this community through various news articles and publications, and I have visited the web site many times. I was not prepared though, for how wonderful and beautiful this neighborhood has become! First it was a little hard to find. I had a vague idea of where it was in Buena Vista, but there were no real estate signs directing you to it. However, you could see it from the main highway through town. Fittingly, you drive down Main Street in Buena Vista to get to South Main. This community is only just beginning, but already you can get a feel for what this community will become. The homes range from fairly modest, to large custom homes, but they all exhibit an attention to detail, and fine craftsmanship that insures these homes will be around for generations to come. Mixed in with the homes, are some scattered mixed use and commercial buildings. It is obvious that this is only the beginning of the commercial core, but what is there embodies the best of commercial architecture. Instead of massive look-alike buildings, or even large buildings that are designed to look like they were built over time, these buildings actually are individual, and will truly be built over time, giving them some real character and individualism. Even the streets have character. There is one street that is built of river cobble, presumably from the river that is adjacent to the site.

As unique as this community is, the story behind it is every bit as unique. The community came to being behind the vision and drive of the sister brother team of Jed Selby and Katie Urban. Neither one had developed a community before, much less having really been involved in real estate. Being life long residents of Buena Vista, and avid kayakers on the Arkansas River, they learned that this 41 acre site was being proposed for development, and would likely cut the river off from the town. Instead, they parlayed a family investment into the ability to purchase the property, vision a community based on sound design principles, and that keeps the river open for the enjoyment of all residents.

While I have enjoyed touring many wonderful New Urbanism communities, this one is a diamond in the rough. It is being masterfully crafted and carried out. My hats go off to Jed and Katie. I only hope that my own development projects turn out as well done as this one it.

Sep 16 2009

Study shows that Traditional Neighborhood designs promote quality neighborhoods

A recent article in New Urban News points to  A study of Orenco Station, a large traditional neighborhood development in Hillsboro, Oregon, backs claims that new urban design fosters physical activity and adds to the richness of community life. The article talks about how studies are now being done that support the claim that traditional neighborhood design actually does work to reduce vehicle miles traveled, promotes neighborhood interaction, and encourages the use of mass transit over typical suburban development. Of course, those of us that support traditional neighborhood design have long supported this claim. Many opponents of traditional neighborhood design have downplayed these claims, saying they are unfounded. Now that studies are being done that support this claim, we will have more ammunition in our pockets. An interesting fact of this study, is that it is not only based on current data (2007), it compares that to similar questions asked in 2002, and tracks the trends. A few excerpts from the article:

• Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed report that people are friendlier in Orenco Station than in the places where they previously lived. In the Beaverton suburb, only 47 percent said people are friendlier there, and 45 percent and 42 percent said this about the two Portland neighborhoods.

• Fifty-nine percent of Orenco Station residents engage in group activities, compared to only 30 percent in the Beaverton suburb and 31 percent and 30 percent in the two Portland neighborhoods. The quality of group activities in Orenco Station appears to be higher than the other neighborhoods. Orenco Station residents most commonly cite group dinners, book clubs, and other informal neighborhood activities. The only common group activities in the other neighborhoods were neighborhood watch and homeowners association meetings. The study notes that in Orenco Station residents meet primarily for social reasons, while in the other neighborhoods they meet mostly to address safety and property issues.

• Social activity rose substantially in Orenco Station in the 5-year period between the two surveys. In 2007, 59 percent reported participating in group activities, up from 40 percent in 2002. In 2007, 50 percent reported interacting with their neighbors in new ways — up from 8 percent in 2002.

• Walking also rose substantially from 2002 to 2007 in Orenco Station, according to the study. In 2002, only 11 percent of Orenco Station residents reported walking to a local store five or more times a week. Part of this can probably be attributed to the completion of the town center.

Aug 14 2009

Feral Houses in Detroit

My wife found this site with several photographs of abandoned buildings in the Detroit area where vegetation has taken over the buildings. It is fascinating look into what nature can do, and a sobering reminder that nature always winds.

Jun 30 2009

L.A. Offers Pay for Lawn Removal

As recently noted in the LA Times Blog, Los Angeles is offering homeowners up to $2,000 to replace their lawns with a sustainable landscape. Other cities such as Las Vegas have done this aggressively. In the blog, it is noted that Las Vegas has removed enough lawns to save 7 billion gallons of water a year, or about one-tenth of their annual water supply. Closer to home, Aurora has had such a program for years offering $1 per square foot for turf that is removed, the same as LA. While I don’t know how successful the program has been overall, I have worked with several HOA’s to reduce the turfgrass they have, and create more appealing communities in the process.

So when is Fort Collins and other Northern Colorado communities going to do the same thing? We keep preaching about water conservation, xeriscape, etc., but no money where the mouth is. Also, other communities such as Aurora and Castle Rock have more restrictions on creating water thirsty landscapes in the first place. When is Northern Colorado going to catch up? Did you know, that in the engineering standards for road design in Larimer County, which Fort Collins and Loveland use as well, it actually requires turf grass to be planted in the parkway strips? This is non-sense. Time to get on the bandwagon and really pay attention to this stuff before the next drought hits.