Category Archives: Urbanism

The Journey to Strong Towns Annapolis

The Strong Towns Annapolis group was pleased to host a stop on the Strong America Tour on October 10, 2019. We are a small but passionate group of Strong Towns acolytes that are sharing the message in Annapolis, Maryland. While every place is different, I hope sharing the journey we have been on will help inspire others to embark on their own journey to making their place a strong town. 

Strong Towns Annapolis Members

The Strong Towns Annapolis group with Chuck Marohn.

Read on about the journey!

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Ignite Annapolis!

I hope you enjoyed my Ignite Annapolis talk “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. The talk was a really brief – but cheeky – overview of how choices we make in our zoning code and regulations often have unintended results that we really don’t appreciate until much later when we experience the consequences in a very real way. Also, it was a nod to the three people that have had the most influence on my thinking about urbanism: Charles Marohn, James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany. If you know any of their work, you will hear them loudly in this talk. The short version in the video:

Read on to get a deep dive into the topics!

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Forest Drive/Eastport study offers hope for better walkability

Appearing in The Capital, March 9, 2019

The Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study takes a small step in the right direction towards a more satisfying future. It is not a plan but it is a hope, a strategic hope. And one must hope and envision in order to get anywhere.

We need to accept the study and keep going.

The Sector Study does accomplish, among other useful things, a vision. It does this by taking what might seem a radical perspective, and that is the perspective of a person walking from one place to another. Why is this important?

Virtually every trip begins with pedestrian infrastructure, whether you are walking or using a wheelchair. People like to walk and ride bikes. You can see this in small and large cities around the country including the older neighborhoods right here in Annapolis.

There are several main factors that affect walkability: efficiency, interest and comfort. Trips have to be close, the path has to be interesting, and people need to feel safe and comfortable. People will typically walk a quarter to a half mile such as around downtown, West Street, Eastport, and West Annapolis because it’s pleasant, interesting and often easier than driving. Biking for transportation is pretty much the same except the distances you can cover are about five times longer, up to two miles for the average person.

But if the trip is interrupted by unsafe or uncomfortable spots with no easy alternatives, walking ceases to be an option.

Unfortunately, this is the situation along the Forest Drive corridor, a typical autocentric pattern where businesses are separated by long distances and the only connection between them is on a sidewalk six inches from 50mph traffic. This environment is hostile outside of a car, so everyone drives even if going between two neighboring businesses.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen areas where we attempt to mix fast traffic and commercial activity, the combination ultimately devalues the land resulting in ugly strip malls.

The area is this way because we’ve made it this way based on the zoning and autocentric requirements we’ve had in place for a long time. Band-Aid solutions such as adding a sidewalk or a multiuse path to the side of Forest Drive are not reasonable as they don’t fundamentally address the conditions that enable people to want to walk or bike.

The vision outlined in the sector study is the first step in addressing these problems. It suggests changing the existing character of specific areas to be more people oriented by having a pattern that is mixed-use and human-scaled, which is shorthand for “things are not far apart and it’s pleasant and efficient to get around outside of a car.”

If we have places like that, we have a real chance to move between them without requiring a car trip. It could be walking or biking or even some kind of specialized transit, like entrepreneurial, privately owned shuttles.

Of course, the area will still accommodate cars for people who need to drive and we will always have significant traffic on Forest Drive given it’s the only major road and the number of people who commute in and out of the city.

But walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that are efficiently and pleasantly connected with the rest of the city will cut down on local car trips and provide options for people who don’t drive.

As mentioned in the study, under current law there is significant capacity for development now. Stopping the study does not stop development, it just gets us more of the same, which is clearly not working. A popular opinion I’ve heard at public meetings is we have to fix all the infrastructure before we do anything else.

That view assumes the status quo, doubling down on an untenable path. At the very least, the vision of the study moves in a direction away from the autocentric policies of the past.

Alex Pline is a member of the Annapolis Planning Commission. This editorial is his opinion and does not represent the opinion of the Commission.

Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study

The City of Annapolis Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study, one of the “neighborhood” plans that rolls up in the city comprehensive plan is in full swing. There were a number of public meetings which I attended and a variety of presentations and work sessions with the Planning Commission, some of which I have also attended.

My main comments on the plan over time – the area is in general the newest part of the city and the most auto oriented as outlined in a prior piece on street grids – revolve around a bifurcated view of the goal of the plan. People who just pass through the area (both city and county residents) do not want any changes that affect auto mobility. They focus almost exclusively on the traffic engineering portion of the plan and only comment on the land use and other parts in so far as they don’t want changes that bring people and in their opinion, more cars. There is the other side of the street that would like to see the area more urban in nature with less emphasis on auto mobility and more on traditional urban development with a more human scaled setting for buildings, economic and residential activity, and mobility. It is this dichotomy that causes some cognitive dissonance in the plan. Strong Towns points out as a core principal that these two are fundamentally incompatible and result in a STROAD which we currently have. The worst of both worlds, people, auto oriented commerce and fast moving cars.

I have expressed this philosophically in public meetings and to staff, but I’m not sure there is really anything fundamental that will come out of that. Because of this dichotomy, I assume the plan will pretty split the difference (status quo) or attempt to do both which will read with the same cognitive dissonance I see now.

Be that as it may, I did want to comment on one very specific aspect of the study area – the need for bicycle mobility along Forest Drive. This has been a long standing goal, perhaps best documented in the 2011 Bicycle Master Plan being the only online “active” plan that contains explicit reference to this.  The May 31 draft of the report is much more explicit about this, and I am encouraged by the additional focus, but want to supplement the options presented with practical implementation suggestions that will result in the highest return on investment. This is the summary I sent to the Planning Commission and Planning and Zoning Staff to be entered into the June 20 public meeting record:

Leaving or entering the City of Annapolis by bicycle requires crossing the ring of automobile-oriented arterial roadways that surround the historic core of Annapolis, including: Roscoe Rowe Boulevard (MD Highway 70), US Highway 50/301, Solomons Island Road (MD Highway 2), and Aris T Allen Boulevard/ Forest Drive (MD Highway 665). Bicyclists of necessity can be seen in all parts of Annapolis, weaving routes through neighborhoods and often on sidewalks to access commercial and employment destinations. The existing network of off-street bicycle facilities is similarly discontinuous, but provides the initial links in what will be an exemplary regional trail network, connecting neighborhoods and forming the core of Annapolis’s future Bicycle Network.

Desired and Existing Bicycle Network

I appreciate the updates in the May 31 draft of the sector study that brings bicycle mobility to the forefront. Both the short term and long term issues are addressed in section 2.7.2.2, Bike and Pedestrian Networks, as well as the potential solutions in section 3.4 Mobility: Pedestrian and Bikes.

Building on the discussion of the issues and potential solutions, it is important to go into additional detail because the efficacy of bicycle infrastructure for both transportation and recreation is very dependent on the implementation. I refer to an article published on strongtowns.org (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/5/19/follow-the-rules-bikers.html) which discusses the auto-centric cultural bias of planners and engineers and how it affects bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure implementation. Perhaps equally important is how this bias affects public perception of this infrastructure. I encourage you to read the entire article.

“…the concept of a “complete street” as “separate but equal”, not to diminish the despotism of racial segregation but to show the parallel of mindsets with how most of the country treats bikers and walkers. When we build a trail – or a separate drinking fountain – we’re (engineers, planners, drivers, society) doing something within our comfort zone. It allows us to feel like we’ve fairly accommodated others while not really having to change our approach to be accommodating. We can continue to act in a despotic way only now with a tinge of self-righteousness. We paid for them to have theirs, after all.”

“We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.”

With this in mind, when the city begins to implement infrastructure outlined in the sector study, we have to make sure it is done in a way that does not just accommodate bikes in an auto-centric environment, but results in a network that is not only safe, but also contiguous, fast and comfortable. If we expect to shift mode share based on this infrastructure – that is to fully realize the return on investment – there must be a definite “value add” for bike riders. For example, faster transit time, bike parking at the front door of the destination, and/or a more pleasant trip. If we always give priority to the auto mode, why would someone chose to ride a bike? This is the most common criticism. Or worse, it incentivizes breaking the law which is always most unsafe for the bike rider because this infrastructure prioritizes the mistakes of drivers over the mistakes of bike riders. The following examples illustrate this bias towards the auto mode and implementation suggestions that attempt to remove this bias.

An Unrealistic Expectation For Path Users

This bike path requires cyclists to stop at every curb cut. Anyone trying to get down this bike path bike will likely never fully stop, resulting in a very unsafe situation.

Shared Use Path Along Forest Drive

In the study area, the existing path near the Safeway grocery store is typical of US-based infrastructure along arterial roads where it is clear the path users are secondary because the turn radii are large and the auto lanes uninterrupted which promotes fast vehicle movements in an area designed to (minimally) accommodate pedestrians and bike riders.

In a similar vein to the visual examples of community character in the draft document, examples of well-designed bicycle infrastructure – we can look to the Dutch for inspiration – will help guide future implementation. The Dutch are not only leaders in urban bicycle infrastructure, but also suburban bicycle infrastructure. The You Tube Channel “Bicycle Dutch” (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC67YlPrRvsO117gFDM7UePg) is an excellent resource for examples of both.

Contrast the above images with this Dutch junction design where the bicycles are given priority and this priority is supported by the visual treatments on the pavement.

Typical Dutch Junction Design

Additionally, an east/west separated path along the corridor should be as isolated from the major arterial as far as possible. Not only will this make the user experience more pleasant, but will move conflict points away from arterials and allow for vehicle speeds to decrease before a conflict point. This is consistent with the complete streets philosophy and many of these ideas are also discussed in the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide (https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/).

There are a number of areas that are slated for development along the corridor that the city should require this type of design as a condition for the development such as The Village at Providence Point and Rocky Gorge (at least garnering an easement for when a path can practically be extended along Aris T Allen). Furthermore, around Annapolis Middle School, there is copious right of way owned by Anne Arundel County that could easily be used for this path and would significantly benefit the children who attend the school. This would also mitigate the current safety concerns resulting from the recent crashes involving school children. Funding for this area of the trail could be sought through the federal Safe Routes to Schools part of the Transportation Alternatives Program.

Given the corridor is a priority residential development area, the large number of existing commercial services and the lack of non-auto infrastructure, construction of this path along the entire corridor should be the highest priority in the capital improvement project recommendations.

A new way to look at development and planning with Alex Pline (E-66)

After all the ranker about local development projects during the election, I asked John and Tim of The Maryland Crabs Podcast if they’d be interested in having me on to talk about development. Much of the discussion focuses on who can say NO the loudest. Ultimately it’s disingenuous to just talk about yes or no on more development or just about the traffic issues. We need to question the underlying assumptions that go along with local development such as the implications of various styles of development on mobility. I lso really wanted to discuss local development in a Strong Towns frame of reference by bringing in the idea of productivity of development styles.

“You may remember Alex Pline. He was last on the podcast talking about parking and biking in Annapolis. He also has some unique ideas on City planning and says that theCity is (and has) been doing it all wrong and proposes a different, holistic way at looking at planning and development.”

It was a lot of fun and I hope I was able to bring a different view to the development discussion. I definitely can’t wait to be back to be back on the show, especially given that we all like to have “beer drinking episodes”.  I also got a nice look around The Commons, a local shared work space on West Street where they do many of the podcasts now.

Give it a listen:

Can Art and Historic Preservation Coexist?

A version of this article When Public Art and Historic Preservation Clash appeared at Strong Towns on May 24, 2017.

Main Street Annapolis (wikipedia.com)

Annapolis is the historic capital city of Maryland and harks back to the Colonial days of the United States. The city’s core contains a lot of the historic fabric from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s including historical gems such as the Maryland State House where the Continental Congress met in the 1780s, the William Paca House (1760s) and many others of lesser fame. While there was some significant demolition in parts of the city over time, fortunately the ravages of the urban renewal years did not gut any large portions of the core downtown and the influence of the automobile was minimal on the street size and configuration.  The preservation of the historical character is in large part due to the efforts of organizations such as Historic Annapolis and through Maryland and Annapolis Statutes as implemented by the city Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Without these heroic efforts beginning in the 1950s and 1960s much more of the historic fabric might have been lost.

Fast forward to the present. Annapolis is generally a healthy and thriving city and is a very strong tourist attraction thanks to the aforementioned historic fabric. However, like many towns and cities, it struggles at times to keep the core areas thriving for locals beyond the standard tourist attractions. In addition to the historic Main Street area that is within the area governed by historic preservation rules, there is another close by area of West Street that has undergone quite a renaissance over the last 20 years with new shops and restaurants thanks to an innovative group of restaurant owners, artists and entrepreneurs who have coalesced the area into an “arts district”. This is due to there not being not a lot of scrutiny when this area was economically depressed. This redevelopment mimics reinvestment in cities where there is little regulation, as Andres Duany says “when government is not watching”. It’s page directly out of the Strong Towns playbook with events such as a weekly “Dinner Under the Stars” and the, “Chocolate” and “Fringe” festivals all organized at the grass roots level with great success.

Arts Festival on West Street (http://www.firstsundayarts.com/)

Compare these two approaches, one top down with codified rules and regulations at multiple levels of government and one bottoms up, with a “try lots of ideas and see what works” mentality led by hyperlocal citizens. When these two meet, in the case public art, there is clash of control.

While much of the “arts district” is outside the historic area boundary, there are a few buildings that are part of the arts district within the boundary and when one owner was cited for peeling paint, he enlisted a well known local artist to do the painting – with a mural.

Time Lapse – Tsunami Mural Annapolis, MD from Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

The response from the city was heavy handed, serving a court order to either repaint it or apply for a retroactive permit. While the HPC code does not specifically regulate paint it does regulate “architectural alteration”. This means the owner would have been completely within his right to paint it a non-historically accurate (whatever that is) color, but the fact that there was “art” in the image made it an “alteration”. After boiling away all of the legal minutia of this disagreement, it comes down to a control issue, not unlike those around Tiny Free Libraries. To be fair, the city says they might approve this particular mural, but they want make that determination.

From our local press:

“We choose not to regulate paint,” said Lisa Craig, the city’s chief of historic preservation, in October 2015, “but when paint gets to the point where it obstructs or detracts from the architectural characteristics of the building, then they (commission members) have to make a judgment call.”

And

Buckley [the property owner] sees it as an attempt to merge West Street’s historic nature with Annapolis’ artistic sector. “We look at beautiful cities all over the world in Prague and in Paris and these cities they make things work with historic buildings and they understand juxtaposition,” Buckley said Friday. “But I feel like we’re not getting that same thing here. So, as it became bigger than us, we decided we would stand up.”

Voices from both sides from a movie trailer “Cataylst” about the mural by Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

Beyond the specifics of this particular interpretation of the Annapolis historic preservation code, this situation is a prime example of two schools of thought on how to build great places, but with diametrically opposed approaches and represents the somewhat bi polar nature of Annapolis’s culture. Some resist change because change is negative and some encourage change because change is good.

For better or worse the court case – at least this edition anyway – was just resolved in favor of the city.

Tension between these cultures is certainly healthy as monocultures are fragile. But when the argument is more about control than substance, in my opinion the balance has shifted away from historic preservation’s original intent. Paint is truly ephemeral as the arts community showed in their cheeky response by staging a “mural funeral” when a second mural was cited by the city.

While historic preservation is critical for cities such as Annapolis, with all of the problems the Annapolis has, and yes, even though we are a small historic city we have many of the same problems larger cities have, spending money and effort on legal challenges is not effective solution to improving the city. Additional hurdles to revitalization based not on substance but control, especially those at the grass routes level, are the last thing the cities and towns need.