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New Urbanism: Left Wing or Left Field? - 10/15/07

New urbanism is coming to our town, or is proposed, in the form of a so-called transit-oriented development (TOD) project known as Deerfield Station. TOD and new urbanism are not officially synonymous, but for practical purposes they are the same thing: transit-oriented development is the primary, real-world application of new urbanism.

So what is new urbanism? In our first essay on the subject of the proposed TOD for Deerfield Beach, we quoted the charter of the Congress for New Urbanism, defining new urbanism as "the restructuring of public policy and development practices" to achieve certain objectives. Wikipedia classifies new urbanism as a "design movement," but it is clear from the foregoing definition, it is also a political movement aiming to modify land-use rules as they may pertain to zoning and density. The purpose, obviously, is to create a political climate friendly to transit-oriented development.

There are a couple of interesting things about this "movement." First, in some cases, new urbanism is tied to a distinctively left wing political agenda; it opposes, or says it opposes, "sprawl," yet in the case of Deerfield Station, the local proposal, it is being used to justify new development. We also find it interesting that the objectives of the new urbanism, at least as outlined by the Congress for New Urbanism, are achieved by many existing, and in some cases very old, communities; and would not require any development or redevelopment or any "restructuring of public policy and development practices," unless the objective was to limit development or preserve existing communities.

It occurs to us, also, that many, if not all, of the objectives to be achieved by this "restructuring" might find support from political conservatives or traditionalists. For example, one objective of new urbanism is that "urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice."

As we read that statement, a basic tenet of new urbanist development is to respect local traditions, as well as to create livable communities; zoning laws, to a degree, reflect local traditions regarding where people live, work, go to school, shop, manufacture, and play. There is a distinctively preservationist feel to land-use policy. If there were no intent to preserve and protect traditional land uses from incompatible development, there would be no need for zoning and other land-use laws. In fact, we suspect most developers would love to see such laws and traditions go out the window. Such political contrivances as CRAs, activity centers, performance or impact zoning, and even TODs are attempts to supplant traditional land-use guidelines with more flexible rules that support approval of higher density development or construction that in times past would been considered out-of-place.

Ironically, in the case of the namesake .org web site, new urbanism has also been made a subset of a radical agenda which would be anathema to many conservatives, some moderates, and probably most business sectors., which defines new urbanism as a "planning movement," offers a 10 point program -- "solutions" -- "that are feasible, sustainable, & safe." These include: a "permanent moratorium on all new major road construction and expansions;" a "huge increase in funding for Amtrak, and the rapid construction of a new nationwide train network" that would "connect every city, town, and neighborhood with an efficient, state-of-the-art electric train network;" an immediate moratorium on additional sprawl; "the revitalization and densification of all existing cities and towns;" the "tripling of minimum vehicle miles per gallon standards for all vehicles produced in America -- accomplished by a quick and complete conversion of all automobile manufacturing facilities to the building of only hybrid, solar, and fully electric vehicles;" a "moratorium on new airport construction and expansions;" a "moratorium on the construction of any new coal fired or nuclear power generating plants;" the "rapid construction of new solar and wind power generating capacity all across America;" the "installation of full roof solar panels on every building in America;" and the "installation of hundreds of acres of organic farms throughout every city and town in America."

Quite honestly, it is not clear to us how some of these so-called solutions are connected to new urbanism or directly support TOD type communities. What is clear is that the cost of some of these items, for example, the cost of a railroad system that would connect every place in America or the cost of retooling all automobile plants, would be monstrous. The web site offers us no clue as to the cost of such a program, but implies that some of it could be paid for by ending the war in Iraq and diverting some of the defense budget to it. It also proposes a "waste tax" and a "carbon tax on the burning of fossil fuels."

We have no idea whether, or how many, other advocates of new urbanism subscribe to this radical agenda.

Returning to the other point, we also find it interesting that there are already communities that could be prototypes for new urbanism right here in Deerfield Beach, to wit: the beach community. Here we have a neighborhood somewhat "diverse in use and population" (we are quoting now the charter of the Congress for New Urbanism); we have a community not necessarily purposely designed, but in fact ideal "for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car" and "shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions."

In fact, the beach community probably offers more public transit opportunities than the proposed TOD. At least five bus routes converge here, including PalmTran. A healthy person can walk or ride a bike to any part of the island or the mainland. Some people who live on the beach do not own cars.

Nonetheless, the main thrust of land-use policy in Deerfield Beach over the past decade or so, now ready to embrace new urbanism, has been to tear down the beach community and supplant it with density and infrastructure that would, if anything, encourage automobile traffic and discourage alternative transportation.

What do we think of new urbanism? It sounds good; it sounds a whole lot less good when couched in a radical agenda to remake the country presupposing a state so powerful it can require every person to have a solar panel on the roof of his house. In the case of the Deerfield Station TOD proposal, new urbanism is a joke, we feel. Here we have a developer who is taking an appealing idea -- appealing to some anyway -- and using it to justify construction of a high-density project that will not likely achieve any of the legitimate objectives of new urbanism, won't work, and will probably make traffic along Hillsboro Boulevard even worse than it is today.

As noted in the piece that follows, the Planning and Zoning Board supports Deerfield Station and unfortunately the city commission also seems poised to approve the project. We could only hope that the commissioners would think about the proposal twice and decide if it really is in the best interest of the community -- or just another developer scam.

P & Z Likes TOD - 10/11/07

It must have been like old home week the other night at the P & Z meeting, when it met to consider what has to be one of the biggest redevelopment projects proposed in many moons for Deerfield Beach.

Dennis MeleThere was even good old Dennis Mele dazzling the board members with all his data "proving" that his client's TOD would drive people (forgive the pun) to use Tri-Rail and other forms of public transportation instead of their cars. Can't you almost see the residents of Deerfield Station -- as the project is called officially -- standing at the bus stop on Hillsboro waiting for the No. 92?

It doesn't come as any surprise that the P & Z approved the TOD. Has the P & Z ever rejected a big redevelopment proposal? The P & Z is about as useless as any city board when it comes to protecting the quality of life or the interests of the community. About the only thing good about this board is that it doesn't have the final word.

One might ask, Who are they kidding that this proposal is any more than another scheme built on deceptions, using what seems to be a good idea, to build more in this location than should be built, and that the main beneficiary will be the developer? The answer seems to be the P & Z and in all probability, and sadly, most of the city commission. Marti McGeary was the only member of the P & Z board to dissent. One speaker suggested that the proposal isn't really transit-oriented development (which is what TOD means), but developer driven.

Of course it is. All new development proposals are developer driven, and developers and their slick spokesmen always have "facts" to persuade the powers that their proposal is endorsed by God and will have no adverse impact whatsoever on the community. But when the "facts" don't quite pan out, everybody who could have used common sense when the proposal was up for a vote shrugs and acts like they don't have a clue as to why what happened, happened.

This reminds us of a few years ago when beach redevelopment was the golden idea in Deerfield Beach, and the city commission approved a restaurant without parking. When the inevitable occurred, i.e., no place for the staff of the restaurant to park and an unbelievable traffic snarl in front of the restaurant caused by the valet service moving cars to a parking lot across the road, the same commission complained, nobody advised us this could be a problem.

If you ever drive down A-1-A past J.B.'s on a weekend night during season, you will see what the problem is for yourself. And there's no solution.

There will be no ready solution either to the even greater traffic congestion on Hillsboro Boulevard that is likely to occur when Deerfield Station is populated. The commission doesn't have to let this happen. But it will be quite a surprise if the city commission rejects the proposal on the basis of plain common sense or requires it to be scaled back to a plan compatible with the existing infrastructure, which is probably something pre-TOD.

New Urbanism Comes to Deerfield: TOD - 10/02/07

Some people are so excited about transit-oriented development, or TOD, that it has its own .org domain name.

In fact, there are numerous websites devoted to TOD and new urbanism. Advocates cite a number of "successful" TOD projects around the country. A developer wants to bring TOD to Deerfield Beach, and the city commission seems favorably inclined.

New urbanism, as defined by the Congress for New Urbanism, is "the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice."

TOD is one component of the new urbanism. The theory is that the people who live in these communities will use public transportation more -- say the bus or street car -- and be less reliant on the automobile. TOD is seen by its supporters as part of the solution to global warming and to the dependence on fossil fuels.

The new urbanism and TOD sound good, but that does not make them good in all cases; advocates stress that TOD has to fit the proposed site.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute's analysis states, for example, that transit-oriented projects require "Significant transit service improvements integrated with more accessible land use and incentives to reduce automobile use...." And, it cites additional costs of development which include "incremental transportation expenditures... and disamenities associated with higher density development, including increased local traffic congestion and noise exposure...."

The site of the TOD proposal for Deerfield Beach is the area around the train station in mid-town. The CSX tracks which pass by there carry AMTRAK and Tri-Rail, as well as freight.

What it comes down to in Deerfield Beach is whether common sense will prevail over theory when it's time to "restructure" our public policy and development practices. Realistically, nobody is going to ride AMTRAK or Tri-Rail to school, the grocery store or for other routine chores. There is no guarantee that anybody who moves into this community will use public transportation at all. It is more likely that the upscale residents of this TOD community will be looking down from their 5th story windows at the poor devils who have to take to bus to work, before they jump into their Beamers and drive to Fresh Market.

It does not take a traffic engineer, or even someone half-way bright, to see that any development in this area is likely to exacerbate the already congested east-west corridor along Hillsboro. The only benefit of allowing higher-density development at this site will flow to the developer.

Will anybody ask why the developer can't develop the land within current rules? The probable answer is that there will be less profit, or not enough to make development feasible under current market conditions.

Of course, anyone who raises these questions will be seen as an obstructionist and "against everything."

There is one good thing about this proposed new high-density project. It's not anywhere near the beach.