February 10, 2013 Partners for Smart Growth conference
I just spent the weekend at the Partners for Smart Growth (newpartners.org) conference in Kansas City. Some of what I learned and saw (plenty of photos here) :
Wed. night- Had to take Supershuttle from airport because KC bus system doesn’t serve airport at night (or, as I learned Sunday, on weekends). Even Jacksonville has weekend airport bus service. For shame!
Thursday- First took a ride on Kansas City’s bus rapid transit. Didn’t think it was much different from regular buses except for nicer bus stops- stops were designated as “stations”, had big stops, computer generated signs telling you when next stop was, big good maps telling you what neighborhoods you were adjoining. Buses had limited stops so about 20 percent faster than regular buses. Buses themselves looked and felt like buses not like streetcars or trolleys- not nearly as impressive as the stations.
Then got off at KC’s River Market area at north fringe of downtown, walked through downtown. Seemed very desolate, very few people, lots of parking lots. Basically depressing, but on the positive side many former office buildings had been turned into condos and apartments, so residential situation improving. Also a big nice downtown grocery store (wow!)
In afternoon visited Westside neighborhoods (1880s neighborhood, heavily Hispanic but beginning to gentrify- lots of vacant lots where houses should be, but many of the houses seemed well kept).
The most interesting part was a discussion of stop signs. A neighborhood activist who was our tour guide showed us a corner where a traditional street signal had been turned into blinking red lights (kind of an electronic stop sign). Why are stop signs better? She said that red/green/yellow signals encourage people to speed to avoid red lights, while stop signs encourage people to slow down. Thus, stop signs may be better, at least in low-traffic residential areas.
Then visited Voelker (1920s KC neighborhood) – moderately nice, reminds me of Atlanta’s Virginia-Highlands area. Most interesting thing was how duplexes, single-family homes, and small apartment buildings coexist amicability, debunking big lie of Euclidean zoning: that single-family and multifamily cannot live together.
Friday- I spoke Friday morning, then went to a presentation on how to make infill easier and better. Dan Parolek praised the “missing middle” of American housing- duplexes and small apartment buildings. These buildings provide density that supports transit (for example, a KC duplex is 12-19 dwelling units per acre, a bus supportive density) but fit into single family areas in a way that a five story apartment building (let alone a high rise) does not. He noted that lot width regulations allow you to ensure visual compatibility with houses: a 30-foot-wide apartment bldg is more compatible with 30-foot houses than a 100-foot-wide bldg. In response to a question about parking and traffic, he said that if you let those considerations guide decisions you are mandating suburban form everywhere (since more parking means more car dependence/subsidization).
Norman Wright of Columbia, Tn. (a small town near Nashville) reminded us of the big picture: by allowing NIMBY veto we make sprawl easy and infill hard so naturally we have more sprawl. He suggested a form-based code that makes infill easy enough that you don’t need a public hearing for infill. Lisa Nisenson also spoke on infill- the most interesting thing she said was to use Pinterest to show examples of best practices.
Then I spent shabbos near the Country Club Plaza neighborhood (there was no shul nearby so I did everything on my own- there is a Chabad nearby but numerous sick children prevented me from visiting the Chabad rabbi’s house as I was hoping to).
From an urban Jewish perspective, Kansas City may be the worst city of any size in America. Other than the Chabad (which isn’t really a full-fledged shul yet, though I suspect it might be in a few years) and a Reform congregation that only meets on Fridays, every single synagogue is in Overland Park, Kansas, where bus service is limited to rush hour buses from downtown. This is dreadful even compared to Detroit (Conservative shul near downtown) or Cleveland (only one Reform shul within city limits, but lots of shuls in transit-accessible inner-ring suburbs) or St. Louis (ditto). If your urban core has less Jewish life than those cities, that is pretty sad.
Saturday morning I walked through the Westport area, which was pretty depressing. The core of Westport (near Westport and Pennsylvania) is nice, but much of the surrounding area has so much parking as to look like a fairly dingy suburb. Also, there is a one-way street or two on the area’s western fringe, which outside downtown really has no value- it just encourages people to speed through the neighborhood, reducing retail value and creating dangers for pedestrian and motorist alike. It could be argued that one-way streets are better for pedestrians because they don’t have to look both ways- but in Westport even this advantage was diluted because motorists were making left and right turns onto the one-way streets, which means pedestrians still have to look out for cars. Dan Burden suggested a good litmus test for one way streets: if drivers speed, turn it into a two-way.
I also walked around the Country Club Plaza area and Ward Parkway; these are quite pretty (especially the fountains and bridges in the middle of Ward Parkway) though I didn’t like that (a) some streets south of the parkway (only five miles from downtown) lacked sidewalks and (b) that the Plaza was so dominated by national chains that there was a lot of practical stuff that was hard to find (e.g. no drug store, grocery etc that I noticed).
Sunday’s highlight was a walking audit of downtown and Quality Hill led by Dan Burden. He mentioned that downtown had some lanes that were 14 foot wide- obscenely wide even by American standards (I think 12 feet is the average suburban lane width). No wonder KC so car-dominated!
He mentioned that one common excuse for wide lanes is buses- but buses are only 8 or 9 feet wide so this argument is weak.
Burden also talked about “transparency” – the idea that pedestrians feel more protected where there are windows on the street as opposed to blank walls. Downtown KC did not do well by this measurement- even condos had blinds hiding first floor windows.
Then we discussed the proper composition of sidewalks; he mentioned that brick, though colorful, isn’t good for disabled or elderly pedestrians because it is hard to maintain, leading to falls. He suggested that decorations like street furniture or bricks should only be in the last foot or two of sidewalk, so people would have plenty of room to walk safely.
As we walked towards residential Quality Hill (just west of downtown) Burden pointed out that not all surface parking lots were equally bad. He showed us one where apartments surrounded the parking lot, creating a level of visibility that might make one feel safer when exiting the car and walking to an apartment.
He also had an interesting idea: every police officer should walk two hours, to (1) get them to know their community better, and (2) put them in better shape (and I would add (3) to be more sympathetic towards pedestrians). Not sure how practical it is, but interesting.