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Posts from the Urban Planning Category

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Historical Photos of St. Louis Capture the Great Violence of “Urban Renewal”

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Some of these images, dug up by Alex Ihnen at NextSTL, almost look like a war zone. Buildings exploding. Entire city blocks reduced to ghost towns. Families out on curbs, carrying all their belongings in suitcases.

It wasn’t a war, though — it was mid-century St. Louis. Perhaps no other American city more enthusiastically embraced the development strategy known as “urban renewal,” a euphemism for wide-scale demolition to clear land for rebuilding on a blank slate. Today we look back on this era as a moral and social catastrophe of our own government’s design.

Urban renewal’s fiercest critic was Jane Jacobs, who was born 100 years ago this week. In recognition of Jacobs, Ihnen unearthed these images of the urban renewal era that she rebelled against, complete with scenes of powerful, confident men standing around neat little models. They are pretty remarkable.

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High Transportation Costs Make a Lot of HUD Housing Unaffordable

"Affordable" housing units with excessively high transportation costs shown in red, and affordable transportation costs in yellow in the Atlanta area (left) and Detroit area (right). Map: University of Texas

Maps of Atlanta (left) and Detroit (right) show HUD rental units with high transportation costs in red and those with affordable transportation costs in yellow. Maps: University of Texas

Rental assistance from HUD isn’t enough to make the cost of living affordable when the subsidies go toward housing in car-dependent areas, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Utah. The study evaluated transportation costs for more than 18,000 households that receive HUD rental subsidies, estimating that nearly half of recipients have to spend more than 15 percent of their household budgets on transportation.

HUD generally considers housing to be “affordable” if it consumes less than 30 percent of a family’s income. But that calculation doesn’t factor in the transportation costs that come along with different housing locations. A family that lives in a walkable neighborhood with good transit options will be less burdened with transportation costs — car payments, insurance, gas — than a family with the same income living in an area where they have to drive for every trip.

A broader picture of affordability comes from the “H+T index” popularized by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which holds that if housing accounts for 30 percent of a household’s budget, transportation should not account for more than 15 percent to keep total costs affordable.

In the new study, researchers developed a model to determine how much households receiving HUD rental assistance have to spend on transportation in several cities. They found a great deal of variation across metro areas. In San Antonio, for example, only 13.5 percent of the housing units were in locations where transportation costs would consume less than 15 percent of household income, while in Los Angeles the figure was 97 percent.

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Which Cities Are Adding Walkable Housing the Fastest?

Since 1970, most American metros have seen their share or walkable urban housing decline, according to this analysis by data guru Kasey Klimes.

Since 1970, most American metros have seen walkable housing decline as a share of total housing. Chart: Kasey Klimes

As more Americans look for walkable places to live, cities are struggling to deliver, and a lot of neighborhoods are becoming less affordable. A new analysis by Kasey Klimes of Copenhagen’s Gehl Studio illustrates how major metro areas have let their supply of walkable housing shrink over the years, contributing to today’s housing crunch.

In this chart, Klimes shows how much walkable neighborhoods, which he defines as places with 10 or more housing units per acre, have grown or declined as a share of total housing in the nation’s 51 largest regions, from 1970 through 2010.

In most places, Klimes writes, the trend since 1970 has left cities in bad shape to handle the increasing demand for walkable neighborhoods:

The percentage of housing in walkable neighborhoods has dropped from 19.4% to 12% since 1970. Overall, though the number of housing units in America has outpaced population at a ratio of 3:2 since 1970, the number of housing units in walkable neighborhoods has trailed behind population growth at a ratio of 3:1. Now that market preference has returned to dense housing, this mismatch has left us far behind in adequate supply.

The silver lining is an uptick in decade to decade construction of dense housing. The net gain of housing in walkable neighborhoods as a fraction of total net housing gain by decade has increased from just 0.3% in the 1970’s to 10.7% in the 2000’s.

Despite some recent progress, the mismatch between low supply and high demand is contributing to rising housing prices and burdening people with rents they can’t afford in many cities and neighborhoods. Zoning that outlaws walkable development and the disproportionate political power of development-averse property owners are two factors that have hindered housing development where it is most in demand.

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The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Our Glaring Lack of Transit Leadership

This plan, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority's bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

This proposal, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority’s bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

The effort to replace the aging and overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal continues to suffer from the New York region’s inability to coordinate its transit mega-projects.

The bus terminal already handles more than 225,000 passengers per weekday and cannot accommodate all the bus traffic that crosses the Hudson in Midtown. Demand is expected to increase about 50 percent by 2040, but there is no plan in place to build a new terminal.

A working group of four Port Authority commissioners has been considering five concepts to replace the bus terminal with a modern facility that can handle many more passengers. Today they recommended a plan to the full board, but the full board didn’t endorse the working group’s proposal, putting off a vote until a later date, pending further study.

The almost-recommended-plan, known as Concept 3, would move the bus terminal one block west. It appealed to the working group for a variety of reasons, including the fact that unlike the other four options, the Port Authority would not have to build a temporary terminal to handle passengers while the new terminal is under construction.

“It doesn’t require an alternate facility and the complete disruption of the passenger experience for a decade,” said Commissioner Kenneth Lipper. “It’s less expensive, and it opens up billions of dollars in real estate.” Selling off development rights could help finance the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $10.5 billion.

But moving the bus terminal west poses serious problems, due in part to the mistakes of past projects.

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This Map Shows Where de Blasio Wants to Reduce Parking Mandates

Parking requirements for affordable and senior housing have already been eliminated in the dark grey areas. Under the mayor's plan, they would also be eliminated in a new "transit zone," shown in purple. Map: DCP [PDF]

Under the mayor’s plan, parking requirements would be eliminated for subsidized housing in a new “transit zone,” shown in purple. Map: DCP [PDF]

In February, the Department of City Planning outlined the broad strokes of how the de Blasio administration will seek to change the rules that shape new development in New York. After eight months of public meetings and behind-the-scenes work, City Hall’s proposals were released this week. The documents reveal details of how the city wants to handle parking minimums in new residential buildings, and it looks like incremental progress, not a major breakthrough, for parking reform.

Mandatory parking minimums, which require the construction of a certain amount of car storage in new buildings, have been in the zoning code since 1961. Multiple studies have shown that they drive up the cost of housing and increase traffic. The de Blasio administration is proposing to reduce parking requirements near transit, but primarily for subsidized housing, not the market-rate construction the city expects to account for most new development.

Perhaps the biggest change in the plan, called Zoning for Quality and Affordability, is the creation of a “transit zone” covering most land that allows new multi-family housing within a half-mile of a subway line.

Within the transit zone, off-street parking would not be required for new public housing, senior housing, or apartments reserved for people earning below a certain income. Buildings that include a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing could apply for a special permit to reduce or eliminate parking requirements on a case-by-case basis [PDF].

Existing parking could also be removed: Senior housing will be allowed to take out parking without needing any approvals, but other types of affordable housing would require a special permit to get rid of existing parking.

There are plenty of holes in the transit zone. Most of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights has long been excluded from the map, despite access to the N and R trains. An earlier map included much of the Rockaways, which was later dropped, and sections of Eastchester in the Bronx were also dropped. In Queens, large sections of Woodhaven and Ozone Park are excluded from the transit zone, despite being adjacent to the A and J trains, because zoning in that area is slightly less dense than nearby sections of Brooklyn.

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The New Plan to Connect Downtown Brooklyn to Its Waterfront

The "Brooklyn Strand" covers blocks cleared for expressways and parks in the 20th Century. Map: WXY Architecture [PDF]

The “Brooklyn Strand” seeks to improve walking and biking connections in an area cut up by highway ramps in the 1930s. Map: WXY Architecture

Starting in the 1930s, entire city blocks in Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, and DUMBO were razed for expressways and parks. Today, this jumble of on-ramps and disconnected green space separates Brooklyn’s waterfront from its downtown core. A new public-private initiative, called “The Brooklyn Strand,” seeks to knit these disjointed areas back together.

On Monday evening, Claire Weisz of WXY Architecture + Urban Design presented the design [PDF] to the Brooklyn Community Board 2 parks committee, Curbed reports. The project is a joint effort of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Mayor’s Office, the Parks Department, and the Department of City Planning.

The plan recommends turning a quiet block of Cadman Plaza East into a pedestrian plaza. Image: WXY Architecture

The plan recommends pedestrianizing a lightly-trafficked block of Cadman Plaza East. Image: WXY Architecture

The plan has been in the works for a year and builds on other initiatives already underway, like bicycle and pedestrian improvements in DUMBO and near the Brooklyn Bridge entrance at the intersection of Tillary and Adams Streets. It also echoes many of the public space proposals from Transportation Alternatives and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle strategic plan.

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De Blasio Team Gradually Beefing Up Its Parking Reform Proposals

New York is one step closer to overhauling a discredited policy that drives up the cost of housing and makes traffic congestion worse, but the scope of the reforms the de Blasio administration is pursuing remains limited.

The city is proposing to eliminate parking requirements in a new transit zone -- but only for subsidized units. Map: DCP

The city is proposing to eliminate parking requirements in a new transit zone — but only for subsidized units. Map: DCP

Last week, the Department of City Planning came out with the broad strokes of a major update to the city’s zoning code, including the elimination of parking mandates for affordable housing near transit. It’s the first time City Hall has proposed completely doing away with mandatory parking minimums for any type of housing in such a large area outside the Manhattan core. However, market-rate projects, which the administration expects to account for most new housing in the next 10 years, would still be required to include a predetermined amount of off-street parking.

The new proposal is a step up from the housing plan that City Hall released last May, which sought to reduce but not eliminate parking minimums for affordable housing close to transit. To cut the costs of housing construction, DCP is now seeking to get rid of parking mandates for affordable housing within a newly-designated “transit zone.”

Similar parking reforms for affordable housing are already in effect in Downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan core. What’s encouraging is that the transit zone is much larger than those areas. Most new construction in the city will probably fall within its boundaries.

The transit zone overlaps in large part with areas less than half a mile from a subway station where multi-unit housing is allowed. Some neighborhoods with low car ownership rates just beyond the reach of the subway are included, while others with subway access, like Bay Ridge and Howard Beach, are not. It covers just about every part of the city where large-scale housing construction is likely.

Within this new zone, parking requirements would be eliminated for new affordable housing, including senior housing and “inclusionary” housing attached to market-rate projects. Existing senior units in the transit zone would be able to get rid of parking without requiring special approvals, while other affordable buildings in the zone must be reviewed by the City Planning Commission before eliminating unused parking.

Outside the transit zone, parking requirements for all types of affordable units would be simplified and reduced. Mandates for senior housing in high-density areas outside the transit zone would be eliminated entirely, while areas that allow single-family houses would retain existing parking rules.

Parking policy experts lauded the city’s move, but noted that it falls far short of what other cities are doing. “Overall, this is a really positive step,” said Columbia University city planning professor David King. “Recognizing that parking requirements are a burden for supplying housing, and affordable housing, is a big deal.”

While the city acknowledges that mandatory off-street parking contributes to high construction costs, it proposes solutions to this problem only for subsidized units. Market-rate units, it seems, will have to continue under the current parking mandates.

“If it’s good for affordable housing, why isn’t it good for all housing?” asked King.

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Peak Sprawl? The Fringes of the New York Region Are Shrinking

Image: Rutgers University

While the urban core shrank and the fringes grew between 1950 and 1980, the inverse has been true since 2010, with urban counties growing fastest, and counties on the edge of the region losing population. Image: Rutgers University

A new report out of Rutgers University [PDF] reveals that since 2010, the fringes of the New York region have lost population as the core has grown, a reversal of the sprawling pattern that predominated starting in 1950, when the suburbs grew and the city shrank.

The report compares regional growth between 1950 and 1980 to the three-year trend gleaned from the most recent available data, covering 2010 to 2013. Authors James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Joseph J. Seneca, a professor at the school, say recent shifts may signal the beginning of a long-term change toward more compact growth, while acknowledging that it’s too early to conclusively say so.

In 1954, Hans Blumenfeld published “The Tidal Wave of Metropolitan Expansion” in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, using demographic trends in the Philadelphia area to accurately forecast a surge of growth for suburban counties in the coming decades. The Rutgers report could be an early indication that a new chapter in regional growth is already underway.

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Trading Cars for Transit Passes “in the Middle of the Corn and Soybeans”

The Champaign-Urbana managed to boost walking, biking and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

The Champaign-Urbana region managed to boost walking, biking, and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

If Champaign-Urbana can make it easier to leave your car at home, any place can. That’s what local planner Cynthia Hoyle tells people about the progress her region has made over the last few years.

With great intention and years of work, this region of about 200,000 has reversed the growth of driving and helped get more people biking and taking transit. Since 2000, Champaign-Urbana has seen a 15 percent increase in transit ridership and a 2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. The percentage of the population biking to work is up, and the percentage driving alone is down. Champaign-Urbana tracks its progress toward these goals on a publicly available report card.

“What I tell people is that if you can do it out here in the middle of the corn and soybeans, you can do it too,” said Hoyle, a planner with Alta Planning + Design who helped lead the process. “Everyone thinks this kind of stuff just happened in places like Portland.”

Hoyle outlined a few key steps along the region’s path toward more sustainable transportation:

1. Coordinate between government agencies to create walkable development standards

Champaign-Urbana’s sustainable mobility push began with the adoption of a long-range plan in 2004. The plan was part of a collaborative effort by local municipalities, the regional planning agency, and the local transit authority.

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De Blasio Housing Plan Meekly Suggests Parking Reform

Parking policy is one area where the de Blasio housing plan doesn’t go all out to achieve greater affordability. Photo: Office of the Mayor

There’s a deep connection between parking policy and housing affordability. The more space New York devotes to car storage, the less space is available to house people. And yet, 50 year old laws mandating the construction of parking in new residential development persist in most of the city, driving up construction costs and hampering the supply of housing.

The housing plan released by the de Blasio administration Tuesday could have announced one simple but major step to align parking policy with the city’s affordability goals: the end of parking minimums. Instead, the plan is strangely passive about parking reform, even though it plainly states that parking mandates contribute to the high cost of housing in the city.

Aiming to add 80,000 subsidized units and 100,000 market rate units to the city’s housing supply in 10 years, de Blasio has laid out more ambitious housing targets than Michael Bloomberg did before him — though not by much. An across-the-board elimination of parking mandates is the kind of measure you’d want to see from an administration that has basically pledged to use every lever at its disposal to keep rent increases in check. It would lower the cost of construction, and it could be used as a tool to extract more subsidized housing units from developers when they build new projects.

But the plan released Tuesday only says City Hall will “re-examine parking requirements.” And the specific parking minimums the plan puts in play won’t touch all development.

The good news is that the plan calls for housing development to be coordinated with transit and street safety improvements, and it does put parking reforms on the table in three respects. It proposes lower parking mandates in subsidized housing near transit, in commercial development that can also support housing, and in housing for seniors.

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