A recent project that came before the Annapolis Planning Commission was made very challenging by the planning dogma that arose in the mass suburbanization era of the last half of the 20th century. The choices made 40-50 years ago to the development pattern in Annapolis that seemed like the next great thing at the time required us to choose the least bad option. Of course hindsight is 20/20 as they say, but we can still learn from the experience as we move forward and I want to share my thoughts on this. The ideas espoused in this piece are mine alone and do not reflect that of the Annapolis Planning Commission.
But first a little personal story that is a metaphor for the issue. When house hunting over the years, we sometimes came across an addition or layout change that made no sense to us and were struck with the thought “what were they thinking?” Subsequently as we were doing multiple renovations on our long time residence, we came up with a litmus test as to whether a design we liked made sense. We call it the “what were they thinking” test. Basically, look at the design from the standpoint of an outside observer who had no stake in the decision making process and just sees the end result. If you shrug and think “what were they thinking?” it’s probably not a great idea. Applying that test is a fundamental part of my general thought process, not just in my personal business but also in my role as a member of the Planning Commission.
Which brings me back to the development called Primrose School (aka SDP2020-005). First a little context. This development will be located at the corner of Hilltop Lane and Spa Road (outlined in red).
This parcel has been empty as long as I have been here, and I’m speculating there has never been anything built on it. It’s a rather odd parcel that appears to be a “scrap” of land that was never utilized as development around it occurred. The parcel is currently owned by Kneseth Israel and is contiguous with their property across Hilltop Lane. I don’t know the long term history of the ownership of the parcel and don’t know why it was never developed, maybe is was being “banked” or there were plans for it that never materialized, who knows? Nonetheless, there have been several attempts to develop the property (zoned R3 – see the allowed uses if you are a masochist) but since the only available access is via Hilltop Lane or Spa Road and this is arguably one of the busiest intersections in the city, any use which relies heavily on automobile access has never succeeded (FWIW any of these attempts precede my tenure on the Planning Commission).
The latest attempt is for a day care school which, while most people will access by car, is a more limited auto use (and maybe some locals will even walk) and thus it made it through all of the initial screening by staff and came to the Planning Commission as a Major Site Design Plan. The same ingress/egress issues are at the heart of this project and make access dicey from a safety standpoint for those both inside and outside a car: left turns across multiple lanes of traffic and a sidewalk, starting/stoping etc. which are all serious conflict situations. To make matters worse Hilltop Lane is a street that has a design such that speeds are higher than the posted speed limit and it basically functions as an arterial – aka a STROAD. Cut to the chase, we were faced with a dilemma of approving a project with a potential traffic mess or denying a worthy project. The resolution to that dilemma is an interesting topic in and of itself, but not the topic of this piece. If you are interested in the gory details of that sausage making you can watch the three Planning Commission meetings on You Tube (initial presentation/design, revised design iteration/approval, discussion/approval of findings). But, yeah, no one has time for that!
What I really want to discuss here are the prior planning choices that created this dilemma. However, I know few if any will watch 4 hours of planning commission video so I won’t leave you hanging and I’ll wrap this piece up at the end with our decision and how I view it. But, to answer the question of how we got to this dilemma, we need to examine the area around this particular development:
The first image contains the adjacent streets and developments to the project area outlined in the square. Note most of the streets are essentially a kind of cul de sac, one way in, one way out. While there are some geographical features that would preclude a strict grid pattern, the immediate streets around the project area are all unconnected for no reason other than by choice. Note in the second image showing the timeframe of city annexations. This is a good proxy for how street layouts changed over various time periods. The thing these streets in the project area have in common is the timeframe they were developed: at the height of mass suburbanization era around 1980. Starting in the 1960’s planners and traffic engineers abandoned the use of street grids wholesale in favor of hierarchical networks. Much of this was because of the adoption of mass motoring – using the automobile as the sole method for mobility – and the perceived negative safety impacts of automobiles on street grids. So after about 20 years, this planing dogma was in full swing and one way in, one way out islands of development were all de rigueur. This was the new way and it was a huge experiment in auto oriented development. Specifically, the Gentry development was done in 1977, Spindrift Lane in 1980, Chatham Lane in 1980, Westwind apartments in about 1983, Bayshore Landing apartments in 1983, and Enclave in 2017 – Oops! More on that one later. There are many other areas around the newer parts of the city that have this pattern (and suffer from the same problems!). After 20 or so years, this typology had not been in place long enough for the negative impacts to manifest, so we kept doing more.
Fast forward 40 more years of living with this auto oriented development pattern. We have more people, more drivers, and fewer real mobility options so everyone drives everywhere. We have learned it does not scale, not in larger cities, small towns or Annapolis which is right in the middle. But it is what it is and other than bulldozing this part of the city and starting over, we have to deal with it which leaves us with the dilemma at this location which I voiced during the meeting:
I realize my position at this point – that the development pattern has neutered the value of this property – is rather harsh, but I do believe the choices we make in land use and transportation policy have a very real impact on the value of surrounding land and we need to keep that in mind as more development occurs. There are many case studies that show an auto centric development pattern greatly degrades the surrounding area. Compare the two sections of West Street (Taylor-Admiral and Admiral to Rt 2) for a local example.
Had this been a different era, say the 1920s-1930s when may other parts of the city such as Murray Hill were developed, there would have been a street grid there. Not the type of grid seen in the midwest where there are no geographical constraints, but at least a minor grid of 2-4 streets that connected to other local grids working around the grades and creeks as much as possible. While mobility on foot in that era was originally a practical necessity, we have learned in the interim that street grids accommodate all types of mobility better (cars, bikes, walking, scootering etc), as long as streets are kept small and thus speeds low and safe. I wonder if at the time planners and engineers had been humble enough to apply the “what were they thinking” test, if the outcome would be different.
Hindsight is 20/20 but we can at least learn from it. Here are my lessons:
First, “when you are in a hole, stop digging”. We have many examples around the city where there are no connections where there could be. I’m not talking about a creek or some physical barrier, rather something that is done by choice. I can think of a number of examples where there are disconnects to prevent “cut throughs” or other choices to allow developments that don’t connect to anything (here, here, here, here, here). At least the city has realized the problem and opened many of these for non-auto use. Frankly, cul de sacs should be explicitly not allowed in our city code (they are “discouraged”) unless absolutely necessary due to geographical constraints. I get people don’t want through traffic coming down their street, but ultimately it’s a tragedy of the commons and taken to an extreme, too many one way in and one way out areas make all mobility terrible because it’s unsafe for all users on what ends up as busy streets that do connect and this typology lacks resilience, which hurts everyone. I advocate for connections whenever possible, but this is often an uphill slog. The latest is the Village at Providence Point and the extension of Skippers Lane where some are skeptical of the connection. Despite some progress, we continue to have new developments with no connectivity such as the aforementioned Enclave at Spa in the project zone and the Terrapin Station development next to the Police Station on Taylor Avenue. Perhaps too much water was already under the bridge in those locations and nothing could be done, but for the later (which was my first project on the Commission), I am already struck with the “what were they thinking?” thought. I have been harping about the need for street grids here for almost ten years and again I realize we can’t (and shouldn’t even if we could) bulldoze an existing area and start with a street grid, but we could emphasize creating as much as possible in our regulations. Fortunately, the light has gone on in the planning circles here, but our words and actions are not always in alignment.
Second, let’s be careful not to jump on the latest planning fad and radically switch our planning dogma to fit that latest narrative. The rise in car sharing services and their perceived successor autonomous vehicles which are always “right around the corner” – Not! This is just the 4th generation of an auto dependence marketing narrative – are examples that come to mind. They should not be ignored, but making wholesale changes around untried and untested ideas is risky. We learned that lesson from the suburban experiment.
Now to wrap this up with what we did on this project. If you watched the last video you will know we ended up approving the project. The applicant did additional work with public works to minimize the ingress/egress issues (moving the curb cut as far as possible from the intersection before the street flares to FOUR lanes) and there is a novel condition as part of the special exception required for this use in the R3 district. The operator of the school assures the city that their business model is such that even though most attendees arrive by car, the drop offs and pick ups are spread out over a longer period of time, say as compared to a typical suburban elementary school where everyone arrives in a 15 minute window with predictable results. As such, they agreed to a condition that if ingress/egress causes “cueing” on Hilltop Lane (see the Planning Commission Opinion for the exact wording), they risk losing their special exception and ability to operate their business. I like this because it places the onus on them to fix a problem if it occurs and not transfer that problem to the city and wash their hands of it. This is the first agreement of this kind that I know of. It will be interesting to see how that condition plays out in practice. These two changes are what flipped my bit from a “0” to a “1” on the project (barely) and thus I voted in favor despite my original comments that it was unworkable.
What will happen here in the long term? Honestly I really don’t know. These are not predictable systems, we can only make educated guesses at the time and even then, conditions change. But I really, really hope in five years we don’t go by here and are struck with “what were they thinking?”