Monday, March 10, 2008

You Want Retail With That?

Andy asked me this evening why I go to various neighborhood planning meetings when they frustrate me so hugely. It's a reasonable question with many reasonable answers. At the heart of it, I'm a busybody and I like to know what's going on in my community. I have learned over time that the things that have the biggest direct effect on my daily life are issues of zoning, traffic, special use permits and the other minutia that can put you into a coma if you're not careful. Feel free to leave off reading this rant at any point if you start to drool or otherwise show signs of fading...

Tonight's meeting was called by a developer who wants an amendment to a building permit. Normally, such get-togethers are held in community centers or church basements or meeting rooms at city hall. I thought it showed such flair that they invited us all to the trendy/spendy restaurant up the street instead, and ordered appetizers. I am a little surprised that this sort of venue is considered acceptable by the city, but maybe it doesn't count as a "bribe the community" attempt if they don't serve booze. Which they didn't. Which would have been pretty funny, now that I think of it.

Anyway, fully half of the attendees were involved in the proposed development. They were all very friendly and very invested in the project which was nice to see. I was impressed by the amount of work they'd done to spruce up the traffic flow and ensure that the number of parking spaces they promised would actually be delivered.

A quick word about "little" design changes to proposed developments. They are never little, and they probably would have been part of the original plan if they thought they could get it by the zoning board and the planning department. The details of this particular case muddy the waters a bit, but that's the gist.

Tonight's presentation so closely mirrors what I heard in my old neighborhood (with horrible results, I might add) that I'd like to describe the presentation in broad details as a caution to anyone else who might be faced with permit/zoning changes in the future.

The developer starts by saying that they are excited by the project, but felt it could be improved over their old design. Problems with the old plan were such that they went to great expense to hire architects to re-draw plans that are oh so much better. See how this full-color representation is so superior to the old black line drawings? We've planned so much better than before, and think you'll agree that this new design would be an exciting addition to our neighborhood. (And do you notice that they've gone from being "the developer" to being one of your neighbors in about 2 minutes?)

Unfortunately, due to events beyond our control (setback requirements, existing infrastructure, these fabulous new designs that we all love so much more) this means that a mixed-use development with retail on the ground floor is no longer an option. It's not a particularly good location for this sort of retail space anyway. As long as we're going to be building something, how about we make it this wonderful new design that we all like so much? If pushed, your friendly neighbor/developer will allow that, yes, they can make better profits on residential than retail, but don't let that sway you because of course we've redesigned (at our own expense!) to make this a better development for you.

I'm uncertain if this is a scheme hit upon by developers (and maybe salespersons?) everywhere, or if each one is the result of someone puzzling out the best way to present the case. Regardless, this is a pattern I've seen at least twice for sure in different parts of the country. And it annoys me.

Nobody present tonight changed my opinion about residential units on the first floor of a development on a busy street. They're ugly, stupid, a waste, and an invitation to ghettofication. (It's like gentrification, except the other way around. Feel free to use this new, trendy term as much as you'd like.)

To directly address the potential developers of 777 Park Avenue in San Jose, I say this:
1. Thank you for designing a better building. You'll sell more units at better prices with this one.
2. It's only "class c" retail space because it would be the first classy thing on the block. You are envisioning profit before neighborhood which does not incline me to support a change in your permit.

In closing, I was genuinely surprised by how "on board" the representative from the Department of Planning was with this whole thing. She loves the new building design, thinks the thing is fabulous, and we wouldn't have a leg to stand on if we tried to deny this great developer a little change in their permit. I am not making this up. She seemed to think that the current zoning, and even the current permit, were up for interpretation and the city really has no control over what's done with the property.

If that is the case, we should all be up in arms that the planning department is so clearly slacking. Higher density development is on the agenda as Silicon Valley continues to attract population, so it strikes me as odd indeed that an area that is otherwise so well planned has no serious zoning in place to address walkability and livability directly adjacent to a major transit hub.

I know of at least one budding urban planner out there who might still be reading this rant... Please let me know your thoughts!


Peter said...

Great post! You're spot on about the importance of mixed use for a walkable / sustainable community. You're exactly the sort of watchdog your neighborhood needs, it sounds like.

You're also right that they're missing a big opportunity by not addressing walkability in an area with growing density that's already near a transit hub.

Given the relatively high incomes in the area, I would have thought that putting in some more green development would have made good financial sense for the developer as well. Generally, the more dense, much more walkable "new urban" developments fetch higher prices.

Keep fighting the good fight, sis! You may not win, but the more developers hear the demand for walkable communities, the more likely it is that they'll try to build those. Also, your local planner needs to be aware that public support for mixed use / human-scale development is growing right there in her neck of the woods.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Peter!

The last thing you want is for San Jose to turn into Las Vegas with no walkable businesses what so ever.

I suggest you getthe police involved. I bet they know how much it costs to have high density housing with no service infrastructure within walkable distance. Empty, isolated streets are NEVER crime free.

I bet Peter could direct you to some people who could address issues of all car no walk neighborhoods. Hmmm, could that mean more travfic congestion and the need for more (very expensive) freeways?

I even have an idea that the NeighborWorks organization that sponsored my trianing might have some clout on these issues. Check their web site.

Peter said...

Hi Dad! You'll have to let me know how your training with the NeighborWorks place turned out.

You're also right about crime. One of the current trends is toward really diversifying uses of areas. The idea is to have people using public areas for as much of the time as possible. If many eyes are about, crime tends to diminish.