Tag Archives: Strong Towns

Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme

Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016

Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of coastline on the Chesapeake Bay make Anne Arundel an attractive place to live.

County residents want significant limits on growth to maintain their quality of life. They also insist on high-quality services like roads, public safety and education — along with low taxes. In the short term, the county can attempt to solicit more money from the state and federal governments, borrow more and promote land development to increase the tax base. But the federal and state governments have their own fiscal problems, and so are contributing less. Borrowing, such as with the recent lengthening of bond terms, has a limited effect. This leaves growth as the primary tool for raising the needed revenue.

Growth in and of itself is not bad. When done in a long-term, fiscally sustainable manner, growth builds wealth for residents, business and the county. The 2009 General Development Plan discusses balancing land use, growth and fiscal policies, but much of the development in the county continues to be auto-centric, even in the targeted growth areas like Parole and Odenton.

We often forget that auto-centric suburban development is an experiment that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order of things because it is what we see all around, and in our collective psyche is the “American dream,” a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. But it is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile. What we are finding is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era operate like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The root of the problem is that auto-centric development, in which residential and commercial areas are widely separated, requires tremendous amounts of land as well as infrastructure that is costly to build and maintain, while yielding very low tax revenue per acre. As long as strong growth continues and new revenue is generated to cover the short-term costs, we have the illusion of wealth because we are delaying infrastructure maintenance and personnel costs. This is the current state of Anne Arundel County.

Even with robust growth, we are starting to see the effects of these long term-liabilities, as indicated in the General Development Plan:

“Over the years, due to rising construction costs and other factors, the county has struggled to keep pace with the ongoing demand for maintenance, renovation and rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure and facilities that have been in place to serve the existing population and employment base.”

For citizens, this is most visible in the roads and traffic resulting from this development pattern. We cannot build our way out of congestion — we don’t have the land and most certainly don’t have the money. Yet we continue to promote development that virtually requires the use of an automobile.

The General Development Plan has goals, policies and actions to produce fiscally productive development, yet our specific regulations that developers must follow still produce the same patterns: greatly separated residential and commercial areas; big, dangerous roads; throwaway strip malls and parking lots. All this requires lots of driving. And it does not generate enough tax revenue to maintain the required infrastructure. We need to change these regulations to return to a traditional pattern of development in which neighborhoods are at a human scale with appropriate mixed use — places where people can walk or bike for many of their daily needs — while having viable transit options to connect these neighborhoods with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. There are still many places like this remaining in the country, such as the suburbs built before World War II. We should be emulating them for a fiscally sustainable future.

This essay was part of Becoming the best is a series of essays exploring the question of what it would take to make Annapolis and Anne Arundel County “the best.”

Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern

Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.

As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?

Largest Gains

There are four types of transportation cyclists: Strong and Fearless (<1%), Enthused and Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%) and No Way No How (33%). To this I would add a fifth group: “Unseen Bicyclists”, who have no particular interest in cycling other than as a nearly free mode of transportation that is faster than walking. In order to get to work they often must ride in inhospitable areas for cyclists.

In years past, transportation cycling in urban areas has included the three of the five smallest groups, personified by the bike messenger (Strong and Fearless), the racer who decides to commute (Enthused and Confident) and the guy riding the squeaky mountain bike on the sidewalk late at night (Unseen Bicyclist). Together, these groups never reach the critical mass/tipping point where transportation cycling would be seen as something normal people do. The question is how to encourage the largest untapped group (Interested but Concerned) to embrace transportation cycling as a way of life?

Infrastructure Is The Key

I use the word “infrastructure” here as it captures the Zeitgeist, but to be more precise, I mean the built environment that cyclists experience trying to get from place A to place B. Interested but Concerned cyclists who would definitely drive to a safe place to ride recreationally, first and foremost, need to feel safe in order to participate in transportation cycling. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that, if not met, significantly degrades the return on investment of any infrastructure as it will not be widely used. Critics will point out that there s no demand, and thus a waste of money. The largest factor in achieving this perception of safety is separating cyclists from fast moving vehicles. An on road bike lane on a 6 lane arterial with speeds of 40+ mph, often the result of Complete Streets efforts implemented by state DOTs, while fine for a fast road cyclist, is not going to make the average Interested but Concerned cyclist feel safe.

md2 bike lane

On road bike lane on MD 2 in Edgewater, Maryland. I ride here often, but I am in the Strong and Fearless Group. (Google)

The second condition that must be met to entice Interested but Concerned cyclists is that the routes need to be direct and efficient from a time standpoint. Dedicated cyclists inherently like cycling as an activity and as a result are willing to “pay extra” in terms of time and effort to do it, but in order for regular people to take up transportation cycling, there has to be real value over other modes. Most recreational bicycle facilities that feel safe are often circuitous or if they are direct, require cyclists to stop at every cross street or curb cut or even worse require pressing a beg button and waiting a full light cycle, making the trip an annoying and time consuming process. As Strong Towns pointed out in the “Follow the Rules Bikers” piece, typically our cycling infrastructure is geared to automobiles, which puts bicycles on the same footing as cars. If there is no time saving advantage, why not just drive? That’s what the Interested but Concerned cyclist would do.

Residential neighborhoods with low and slow traffic offer acceptable routes for the Interested but Concerned cyclists and can be direct if the development pattern is a grid of streets with good connectivity. But so often local subdivision regulations or requests by residents close off streets to through traffic and once they are closed, very hard to reopen even for pedestrian or bicycle access. Yet, they can have a significant positive impact on the efficiency of a route.

victor parkway

Victor Parkway in Annapolis, Maryland has a fence between adjacent neighborhoods. The only way around is using a notorious five lane arterial that adds a half mile distance. It took a significant effort with the City of Annapolis to get even the pedestrian gate opened. It helps but is still unpleasant for cyclists. (Google)

Start With An Insider

A decidedly un-Strong Towns approach to getting Interested but Concerned cyclists engaged in transportation cycling would be to advocate for a huge pot of Federal transportation dollars and plan a perfect Shangri La bicycle network. Municipal governments often won’t do anything because of the perfect solution fallacy. They know this approach is not workable so anything incremental is rejected because it isn’t a complete plan and problems would still exist.

A better Strong Towns approach would be to work incrementally starting initially with a “do no harm” mantra and building on that to address the issues mentioned above. The number one action a municipal government can take to prevent further harm is adding a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle planner to the staff who has a seat at the table for any infrastructure development and maintenance projects. The singular focus of a subject matter expert who really understands the perspective of the Interested but Concerned, can point out bad designs before they are implemented. Additionally, the insider cultivating relationships with local cycling advocacy groups can be a force multiplier in this regard, utilizing a broad network of people who understand issues at a hyper-local level. This is the foot in the door that will provide internal advocacy for early input to projects. Collectively that will improve the infrastructure over time to raise the interest and reduce the concern in transportation cycling.

An Illustrative Project

I will end with a local example that highlights how a cycling subject matter expert might have prevented a disaster from happening. In Anne Arundel County, there is an on road bike lane along a well-traveled recreational route to view the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis Maryland where I live. It’s essentially a 4-5’ shoulder with bike lane markings. Not great, but good enough to make the average recreational cyclist comfortable, and sadly one of only two marked bike lanes in a county with 4000 lane miles of road under its jurisdiction.

bay_ridge

Bay Ridge Avenue immediately south of Annapolis, Maryland. The driveway on the right is being expanded to accommodate a church expansion.

The expansion of a local church required a turn lane according to the County code. However, this situation was complicated by the presence of a park next door. The park has some recreational paths that are contained within the park and do not serve a transportation purpose in any way. The engineering company that did the design work is a respected regional firm, but the design that was approved by the County makes very little sense from a transportation cyclist’s point of view.

bike squeeze

The bike lane prior to the driveway was replaced with a turn lane. Although common when turn lanes are added, not a good situation for cyclists. But the most egregious change was after the driveway, where the bike lane was blocked with a concrete curb and only resumes after the curb radius where the park path exists to the road. Since virtually all cyclists will be going through, this presents an extremely dangerous situation for cyclists who can get squeezed into the curb by a passing car.

The design makes an assumption that due to the proximity of the park all cyclists are going to be riding on the path around the park – the standard recreational assumption. Because the County does not have a subject matter expert on staff, they assumed that extending the park path in lieu of the bike lane was a benefit, not a detriment. Anyone with local/contextual knowledge would have flagged this design as unresponsive to the typical cyclist pattern and it could have been easily corrected prior to construction with no adverse effect to the church by maintaining the bike lane straight through. Sadly, it was not seen until after concrete had been poured, making a correction difficult and costly.

Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland (Library of Congress)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

I currently reside in Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland, a smallish city of about 40,000 people. The dominant view of cycling here is that it is an athletic or recreational endeavor. You know, “put the bike on the car and drive somewhere to ride”. However, Annapolis is ideal for getting around by bike. It’s compact, only eight square miles, and you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the surrounding areas that are experiencing a lot of urbanized growth with a flat two or three mile bike ride.

Annapolis Map

Annapolis is very compact.

This is easily within the ability of most people. I ride my 1972 Schwinn around town because it’s a convenient and economical mode of transportation to accomplish my daily business of getting to the DC commuter bus stop for work, shopping, and socializing around town. But there are too few of us and we often feel like lone voices in the wilderness. Thankfully, many cities around the world and a growing number of cities in the U.S. are proving that bicycles can easily be a part of a modern transportation system. What’s missing here to make transportation cycling appealing for more than just the “Strong and Fearless” – or those who have no other choice – are the connecting off-road paths and bike lanes called for in the city’s excellent, but mostly ignored, bicycle master plan.

Bikes are cheap and save money. Despite this area having a very high median income, many residents in the city pay a disproportionally large portion of their income to own and operate a car, never mind multiple cars. Using a bike for around town trips can easily decrease the number of vehicles a family needs to have and saves wear and tear by using the car only for those trips that require it. Riding a bike for my daily needs saves thousands of dollars per year in my family budget. Relatively inexpensive bikes can easily haul a surprisingly large amount of stuff, require very little maintenance and avoid the city parking costs. And, bike riding if viewed as something regular people do, provides equity of access to our streets as Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes about in Charleston SC.

Bike towing a moth sailboat.

Yes, bikes can do real work. Extracycle makes great hauling bikes (I do not own one or have any financial interest in the company) and some awesomeness from a local Moth sailor.

Bikes are cheap for the city, too. A lot of the auto-based traffic here is short trips around town, which can easily be done on bikes. The city is geographically constrained by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and as a result land is extremely valuable. While the city is in reasonable fiscal shape overall, it has neither the means nor the land to widen roads for more cars. Development is a hot topic here, and the general opinion is we need to lock the door in the Party Analogy. It inevitably conjures the traffic “boogeyman” as the assumption is that an additional person equates to an addition car. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many small bike projects the city could do that would have a high return on investment in mobility. We often hear that Annapolis is not affordable. With a good cycling infrastructure, we can support additional development and can attract younger people who will likely choose bikes for a significant portion of their transportation needs. It doesn’t take much of a shift to bikes to have a large effect on traffic congestion and amount of needed parking.

And finally, there has been a lot of discussion recently in various forums here about rampant speeding in the city. I believe much of this occurs because people spend so much time in their cars in traffic that they have become chronically frustrated, often expressing that frustration as impatience or even road rage towards other drivers, walkers and bike riders. Spending time on the other side of the windshield brings the perspective of non-drivers into clear focus. Everyday riding makes me appreciate the luxury when I do use the car, especially if the weather is bad or I am tired. As a result, I am much more relaxed and courteous behind the wheel when I drive.

May is National Bike Month and we should celebrate transportation cycling. If you are a recreational rider, throw a basket on your bike and make a few trips to the store; if you haven’t ridden in a bike in a while, dust off that bike in your garage or grab an old beater from Craigslist and give it a try. The more people ride, the safer it is for everyone and the more apparent it will become to city governments that bikes can perform real work.

alex_pline_bike (1)That’s why I ride a bike.

Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team.

Does West Street Need a Taco Bell?

In July of 2014 The Capital published an article about a possible land swap between the City and a property owner in exchange for some land to reconfigure the Chinquapin/West/Admiral intersections. One aspect of that was the possible addition of a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant at the site of the old Whiskey. I wrote about that in an Op Ed in the Capital. I’m not sure what has transpired with respect to the intersection other than I know SHA is looking at some options, but there is movement on the Taco Bell front.

Fast food restaurants in the City of Annapolis require a special exception to the zoning code and the owner has submitted an application to the Board Of Appeals which will hold a public hearing tonight (6/2/2015):

SE2015-001 – Special Exception application by Star Properties, LLC, property owner, and R & R Ventures East, Inc., business owner, to develop a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility, on property located at 1803 West Street

Below is my public testimony submitted for this hearing:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on SE2015-001.

I believe the request for special exception SE2015-001 should not be approved. My objection is not the product the business is selling, but the form of the building from which the product is sold. Fundamentally, a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility is not appropriate for this location along West Street because of the form of the proposed building – an automobile oriented drive-thru typical of suburban strip mall development – is not consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and as analyzed below, there is a very large opportunity cost to the City with this building form.

Drive-thru Restaurant is Inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan

In chapter 3 of the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan on Land Use and Economic Development, there is a set of cascading principles, objectives and opportunity areas that is directly applicable to this special exception request.

Principle 2. Infill development can occur, and it should occur in a manner that respects the size, scale, and use of existing and historic development patterns … Successful infill

maintains and/or restores spatial continuity to streetscapes; strengthens neighborhoods and commercial districts … introduces compatible uses that complement community attributes and needs.

Outer West Street is designated as an Opportunity Area for redevelopment:

This Plan recommends a transformation of the area, from an automobile oriented suburban commercial pattern to an urban character focused on residential development and commercial uses.

Specifically:

Buildings should front directly onto West Street with little or no front yard setbacks and little interruption of facades. And, It is recommended that the street transition to an urban boulevard in character with widened sidewalks, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle crossings, street trees, transit features, and street lights.

The typical drive-thru restaurant with a building set back far from the street surrounded by parking and other auto infrastructure is counter the these statements from the most general principle to the most specific opportunity area recommendation.

This automobile oriented development is decidedly not friendly to anyone outside of a car. The typical design of a drive-thru restaurant such as that proposed requires multiple curb cuts across pedestrian ways such as the sidewalk along West Street. Curb cuts can be dangerous to pedestrians as drivers fumble with purchased food as they drive out of the lot. Patrons wishing to visit such an establishment without cars must walk through surrounding parking from the sidewalk and most often cross drive-thru lanes leading to the establishment doors. By design this template is intended for areas where all people are in automobiles; for pedestrians, at best it is unpleasant or at worst dangerous.

A vibrant street life similar to what exists on inner West Street is created when people can walk and ride bikes along a streetscape that is interesting at a human scale. If we want to extend this to outer West Street as indicated above in the Comprehensive Plan, we must make choices that are people oriented. There are already examples of this along this part of West Street such as the mixed-use development at 1901 West, the new commercial development at 1730 West, and significant public investment in pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, signals and crosswalks). We need more development like this and an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant is decidedly not consistent with these recent private and public investments.

Fiscal Productivity of a Drive-thru Restaurant

Beyond the aesthetic and functional components related to the Comprehensive Plan, there is a fiscal component associated with the proposed development plan. An automobile oriented development pattern represents a lost opportunity for the City. Property tax revenue is the single largest source of revenue for the City and it is in the taxpayer’s interest to receive the best return on property tax investment by promoting development that maximizes the use of City infrastructure.

It illustrative to compare the return on investment for a given frontage by comparing tax revenue from two diametrically opposed building forms along West Street: a traditional urban commercial form on inner West Street as encouraged in the Comprehensive Plan with a low density automobile oriented form as is the existing condition on much of outer West Street. A typical Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant occupies approximately 30,000 sq ft. (for example, 3091 Solomon’s Island Rd, Edgewater). For the purposes of this comparison the inner West model is Rams Head Tavern and Theater and the outer West model is McDonalds, which is the same type of automobile oriented design as the proposed Taco Bell. Both are relatively similar uses (consumer-based food) and share about the same frontage along West Street, although the proposed Taco Bell is approximately twice the lot size. Using the existing property tax rate of 0.640 per $100 of assessed value, we compare the value to the city of the two diametrically opposed development patterns:

Establishment Land Area(sq ft) Assessed Value ($) Tax Revenue($) Revenue/Area($/sq ft)
McDonalds 25, 264 1,157,900 7,411 0.29
Rams Head (2 plots) 16, 192 4,661,800 29,836 1.84

(source: MD Real Property Database)

From a fiscal standpoint, the urban commercial form is significantly more productive per square foot than an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant by more than six times. A building form that maximizes the available land – parking lots and drive-thru lanes do not “improve” the assessed value much compared to a building – also maximizes the return on investment for a given amount of the City infrastructure (water, sewer, streets). For a City that is continuously facing budget challenges, why would we want to encourage development that minimizes return on investment?

Conclusion

The most important aspect of development along the West Street Corridor/Opportunity Area, is the form of the buildings, not the businesses occupying the buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with national chains or prepared foods per se in this area, as long as the form of the building maximizes financial productivity and in consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Furthermore, businesses come and go in response to changes in consumer tastes and market demand, and a building that is not purpose built as a drive-thru restaurant is much more likely to be easily reused as the occupying businesses change. This helps make the area much more resilient to future change.

As the proposed form of the building is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan and represents lower fiscal productivity for the City, the special exception should not be granted.

Traditional Street Grids are the Answer For Future Growth In Annapolis

One of the most acknowledged problems in the Annapolis area is our congested “corridors” because they provide the only way in and out of various areas in the City and surrounding parts of the County. If there is a closure, mayhem ensues. In addition, these roads – really STROADS now – are terrible for everyone: drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and businesses because they do nothing well. If you are not familiar with this term, I highly recommend you watch this video to understand why they are so unproductive. They don’t move cars fast, they are dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists and are typically ugly, unloved places people do not want to spend any time other than driving in and out, which hurts businesses.

Pretty much everyone accepts this status quo and does not fundamentally question why it is this way and what can be done differently to work better for everyone. All we hear is either “no more development” or “add more lanes”.  Keeping things exactly as they are now with a development moratorium and/or adding capacity are just short term band aid solutions that are either unrealistic or too expensive; as unpopular as this opinion may be, development is going to happen, that is the way it works in the free market in this country. However, development is not the problem; the development pattern is the problem. Transportation and land use must be considered holistically to address the fundamental issue: how we design neighborhoods and neighborhood streets. We have gone away from a development pattern utilizing grids of neighborhood streets that has worked well for hundreds of years to one that emphasizes single point of failure roads that prioritize automobile traffic over all else. In the newer parts of Annapolis, we have allowed – and continue to allow – this auto-centric development pattern that has become de rigueur for developers since suburban boom of the 60s.

I want to explore the development patterns in Annapolis’ context and illustrate how the conventional development wisdom of the last 50 years – the only thing many people know – keeps luring us in the wrong direction. Despite the forward-looking guidelines in our planning documents, there are many examples of developments in various stages along this corridor that are incongruous with the ideas put forth in those planning documents. At this point, there is no simple fix; that said, we have to work towards a different paradigm that I discuss below if we expect it to ever improve the situation.

Development Pattern of Annexed Land

Over the years, the City of Annapolis has been slowly annexing land from Anne Arundel County on the southwest side of the city along the Forest Drive corridor as this is the only adjacent land available for new (not infill development).  City Planning and Zoning preduced a map of annexations over the last 200+ years (from the report of the Annexation Working Group from 2005):

Annexation of land over the history of Annapolis. Note how the street layout changes with time.

There are many motivations for annexation and they are often controversial but if it is done in a productive way, i.e. the land use pattern generates more in tax revenues than it costs the city in services over the full lifecycle, it’s not a bad thing. But I digress, that is a topic for another time.

The development done between 1980 and 2000 to the south and west of Aris T. Allen/Forest Drive has been a very typical suburban template indicated by curvy streets, cul de sacs and a hierarchical road network (where smaller streets feed into a collector road that feeds into an arterial). There are a lot of reasons why this evolution happened: perceived safety, wide spread use of the automobile and federal housing policy among them, but this pattern has become the standard template for the last 50 years in all but the most established cities. Compare the oldest areas of Annapolis, Downtown, West Annapolis and Eastport, with the newer development to the west and south and you can see this exact evolution of street layout in our area:

Evolution of street layouts over the 20th century.

A lot has been written about this evolution in recent years, but a nice summary is from an article by Emily Badger, who now writes for the Washington Post, entitled Debunking the Cul-de-Sac:

Through their research, Garrick and colleague Wesley Marshall are now making the argument that we got it all wrong: We’ve really been designing communities that make us drive more, make us less safe, keep us disconnected from one another, and that may even make us less healthy.

Street grids provide intrinsic benefits. First, they allow the most direct access between two places. This efficiency is especially important when walking or riding a bike, but also for drivers. Second, a grid provides multiple paths to get from place to place which has the effect of distributing cars throughout the grid and minimizing congestion. And, if one route is blocked, there will be equal alternatives. As long as the street design is done correctly to maintain slower traffic appropriate for a residential street, there will not be issues with speeding. Third, with a grid of slow speed city streets, there is no need for additional infrastructure for other transportation modes such as bicycles because these streets are inherently “complete streets“.

We certainly see the effects of the lack of a grid along Forest Drive. There are no through streets which funnels all cars, pedestrians and cyclists onto Forest Drive.  That is the intention in this development pattern where it is assumed that all trips are by car. From a practical standpoint, it is unpleasant at best and unsafe at worst to make trips on foot or by bike so no one does, which promotes even more auto dependence. To make matters worse, the commercial development essentially makes Forest Drive into a local street with driveways/access to business while simultaneously trying to move high volumes of cars quickly. Frankly, it does neither well, the classic definition of a STROAD.

This was recognized in the annexation report of 2005 and notes that this has been an issue all the way back to the late 1980s:

“A word on Forest Drive: Currently Forest Drive has a high number of signalized and un-signalized intersections and points of access. It does not operate as an arterial highway and instead is similar in function to that urged by community residents during the City’s 1989 Forest Drive Sector Study: a “city street” in character and function. The land use plan should clearly confirm and re-articulate the role and function for Forest Drive to help establish reasonable expectations about viable levels of service, congestion, and delay.”

The report goes on to say there should be a “parallel road” to help alleviate future congestion:

“The construction and development of the proposed parallel road should likewise be guided by design standard that is agreed upon. Certainly, the plan should identify the Forest Drive parallel road as a future corridor and designate future development nodes along that road, if appropriate. “

Furthermore the 2009 Comprehensive Plan continues this thought in the Land Use and Transportation chapters for the Forest Drive Opportunity Area by indicating the need to have more intense, mixed use, urban center low development with an upgraded “transportation network”, but unfortunately does not explicitly state the form of the street network.

Without a significant push for a street grid network along this corridor, nothing will change. While we have continued to add capacity with successive Forest Drive widening projects, the congestion problems are not any better. We can not continue development in this way and apply the conventional congestion mitigation solutions of more lanes and wider roads if we want improvement. The old adage will continue to apply: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”

Current and Planned Development Projects

There are several development projects proposed on annexed land that have preliminary site plans, The Reserve at Quiet Waters and Crystal Springs. These two are very controversial for many reasons, and I am not making a statement for or against here, but suffice it to say both follow the development patterns of the cul-de-sac generation, rather than knitting those developments into a traditional city street grid along the southwest side of Forest Drive. This is clear from their site plans here and here. For sure a different pattern would not solve the myriad of issues around those developments (schools, environment etc.), but would go a long way to supporting the additional density if there were a traditional street grid. The City should insist street grids be incorporated into these developments so that eventually as subsequent development occurs, the entire area will all knit together as a comprehensive city, rather than let these projects exist as development islands requiring auto transport in and out as we typically see in subdivisions in rural/greenfield areas.

Unfortunately, this “island mentality” seems to be winning out. This is what we have to change. Instead of thinking about how we can do things differently, the future looks like doubling down on the existing pattern as indicated by legislation recently introduced at the City Council (Resolution R-33-14) . This legislation would allow vehicular access to a planned neighborhood off Aris T. Allen (MD 665) along the “highway” portion between the MD 2 interchange and the Aris T. Allen/Forest Drive/Chinquapin Round Road intersection. While this appears to be a “transportation” issue (disclosure, I sit on the City Transportation Board), it is a mistake to characterize this resolution this way; it is really a holistic land use and transportation issue.

A suburban style (i.e. non-grid layout) neighborhood exists in that area called Oxford Landing built in the late 1980s which is centered around Yawl Road:

Just to the west of Oxford Landing is a parcel that a developer wants to put in additional residential units, but the only access would be through Yawl Road, which is understandably untenable for the existing residents. This legislation would allow access to this new development from Aris T. Allen. Not only that, it would forbid access through Oxford Landing. This is what the area looks like:

Satellite View of the proposed area. The proposed access to Aris T. Allen is a the top of the image.
Street View south on Aris T. Allen. The proposed access has an existing curb cut on the right.

Adding access to Aris T. Allen will be extremely dangerous. This is a limited access highway and people travel 50-60 even 70 mph down that section. If you add turning vehicles in and out at 10 mph there will be serious crashes and deaths because of high differential speeds. To add insult to injury it will be worse for drivers because it will interrupt the flow of traffic, the primary function of this road. Why take a road that is meant to move cars efficiently (and nothing else) by design and intentionally degrade its effectiveness? Furthermore, closing off access through the existing development and forcing all access via Aris T. Allen is even more egregious because it will be impossible to get in and out of that neighborhood unless you are in a car. What are pedestrians and cyclists supposed to do? Aris T. Allen is meant for cars and nothing else.

This area needs to focus on adding a street grid, rather than continuing with the current pattern and band aid solutions such as the proposed Aris T. Allen access. That is the only way that additional development can occur without making an existing problem worse. What is proposed is incredibly counter to the ideas for a strong and resilient city put forth in the Comprehensive Plan. In the ideal world it would look like this:

A traditional street grid imposed over the existing area including the Crystal Springs land.

I show this not so much because I think it could practically be done at this point, but as an illustration of a pattern that has worked very well in the older sections of the city such as West Annapolis and Eastport. That said, any new development should be required to add additional streets that provide through access to create as much of a grid as possible. If this can not be accomplished, perhaps the development should not be allowed on the grounds that it does not conform is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

Finally, there is additional property along Forest Drive proper  (the “Samaras property”) that is in early stages of annexation. This is part of the Forest Drive Opportunity Area as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. This area represents the best opportunity to implement a traditional street grid because there is a significant amount of undeveloped or redevelopable land and it is expressly called out in the Comprehensive Plan for such development. Given there is already a mix of commercial and residential development, this could easily turn into the next neighborhood like West Annapolis, where people can, and do walk to near by services without needing to drive, as long as it is done with an appropriate pattern.

Forest Drive Opportunity Area and Reserve at Quiet Waters with a traditional street grid.

Summary

While there is some justification for a non-traditional pattern in low density rural areas where it is assumed you only travel by car and will remain that way, this is not what Annapolis is about. We are a city; we should act like a city. People who live in a city want, and in many cases need, to walk and bike places. Annapolis can support more density, will have more density in the future, and in fact needs more density if it is to have a workable transit system. However, the last thing we need in Annapolis is more auto dependent density. This means having neighborhoods with traditional street grids that provide efficient and pleasant access for people walking and riding bikes as well as driving cars. Eastport, West Annapolis and Homewood were all built this way and all transportation modes coexist more or less. This is what makes these areas so desirable. We did it this way for hundreds of years prior to the suburban building boom and there is a reason we did it this way: it works. The litmus test: can you take an easy, pleasant walk to the grocery store? I wrote about this recently.

Implementation of street grids in new development and redevelopment should be a critical focus for the City planning organizations. Sure it may be more expensive, require compromise by residents and developers and may require more than a developer wants to do, but if development is done in a way that makes the City stronger, the return on investment will be there for the residents, the City and developers. We should not let bad development happen because we want to chase a tax base while it kicking a mess we see coming down the road, only to address it with no good choices at City/tax payer expense. I am not anti development, I am just anti bad development. We have an excellent Comprehensive Plan that outlines this, we just have to follow it, otherwise our choices just get worse as time goes on.

Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store

I live in the Annapolis Maryland the historic capital of the state, one of two incorporated areas in Anne Arundel County. The historic city proper is about 40,000 people, a very small town compared to the neighboring Baltimore and Washington DC, which is essentially infilling into a single mega metropolis. Through a series of good – lucky, if I am honest with myself – decisions we bought a house in the West Annapolis neighborhood. For those not familiar with the local area, and maybe also for those who are, but need a perspective check, the proper way to think about West Annapolis is a neighborhood of the city or something like a “first ring” suburb in a larger area. For the planner types, it is a combination of T3 (sub-urban where most of the residences are) and T4 (general urban where our local business district is).

The neighborhood dates back to the late 1800s when it was planned for development from farmland. An early map shows the traditional development pattern which is bordered by creeks/rivers on three sides.

e0091-wardouroldmap-529x389It never ended up quite that dense and interestingly the part to the right of the map ended up being redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted to be more “Central Park-like”due to the topography and the desire for larger lots on the water. In addition, the B&A Railroad used to go directly through (shown on the bottom part of the map) with a stop in West Annapolis on it’s way into Annapolis. Interesting local history, but I digress.

I feel very fortunate to have ended up here because it is an extremely walkable compared to other parts of the County. While we ended up here 20 years ago based on making easy commutes to Baltimore and Washington for me and my wife, there is just something inherently attractive about this kind of neighborhood. At the time, it was really just a “feel thing” until my interest in urbanism began to develop a number of years ago. I realized I have always lived in places like this: New Bedford MA, Cleveland Heights OH, Lakewood OH, that is, all within walking or biking distance to various amenities I care about. I don’t think it was by accident, these are places that people really like. Now with the vocabulary of urbanism, I can more explicitly explain why I like them.

Which brings me to the Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store. Honestly, it’s a bit of a no brainer as we have a full service grocery store less than 1/2 mile away that is an interesting and pleasant walk or bike.  You can see from the map that the neighborhood has a small street grid not unlike that in the 1890 map above and the walk is from the blue dot to the grocery store icon at the bottom. Don’t let the local Walkscore of 57 throw you off, it’s really misleading.

65680-west_annapolis_walkscoreWhile I typically ride my bike there because it’s faster and I just like to ride bikes, it is a very pleasant walk. It starts with a walk up my street, which has parked cars both sides and no sidewalks, even though there are lots of people walking dogs, kids etc. We don’t need them as the driving cues say “whoaaa, 25 is way too fast”. The houses are interesting and the Elementary School is at the head of the street.

f665c-img_3487This is a very sub-urban kind of thing, but within a block or two, we arrive at the school (on the right) and the business district at the light). The city has added bike lanes (even though they don’t connect to anything useful from a transportation perspective – grrr), which help slow people down. A recent to be published city sector study (for planners if you are really interested) has recommended bumpouts at intersections to help and provide better crossings for the school.

ddd49-img_3488At the light you take a right into the business district, about 2×3 square blocks. It contains a mix of specialty shops a coffee shop and a few restaurants and a lot of suburban type doctor’s offices (not shown). I disagree a bit with many people in the neighborhood in that I believe the business district would be better served by a bit more density, but that is not what most people want. That is a discussion for another time…

4f73e-img_3489At the next block you take a right, then a left and you are nearly at the shopping plaza which contains an excellent – recently remodeled inside  – full service grocery store, a drugstore, a bagel shop, a quick service Italian/pizza restaurant, a Chinese restaurant and a bank and 7-Eleven across the street. Pretty much a good smattering of amenities.  For the most part there are good sidewalks, although there are a few missing teeth, but the cars move slowly here and it is not catastrophic. Easy to walk, easy to bike, even for children. There is some traditional mixed use, but it is older and none built in recent years. I hope this will change, but the area is not specifically zoned “mixed use”, which might prevent such development, I don’t really know the intricacies of the laws, but that in and of itself might be part of the problem. Developers really don’t want to do something that is “tricky”.  The Chinese restaurant is the classic example; the owners still live in the attached house.

57323-img_3492The shopping plaza is not particularly attractive and has all the wrong attributes (parking in the front, single story, no mixed use), but it is functional and most importantly, is human scaled. The amount of parking is just about right, on any given day it is close to being full.

3b8d8-img_3490This area directly abuts the US Naval Academy and a few years ago the owner of the property flirted with kicking out the tenants and selling/redeveloping the property into a hotel that would cater primarily to visitors of the USNA. The locals (including me) expressed interest – that’s a bit of an understatement, we marshaled the troops with pitchforks – in keeping the mix of businesses the same because it is exactly those that makes this area walkable from a “getting around in your daily life” perspective that we all know is so critical to creating places people love. Thankfully, the owner decided to continue working with the existing businesses and as a result there has been new investment in the buildings with significant inside renovations of the grocery store and the bagel, shop, a good sign of commitment on all sides.

So I walked to the store to pick up some lunch today. A nice one mile walk on a glorious fall day. I am grateful that my experience is neither difficult nor uncommon. Annapolis and specifically West Annapolis is not perfect for sure and as much as I might criticize the City, it is because I love it and want to see it prosper as a Strong Town. It is way better off in this regard that many other places in the area. We really have a huge number of Strong Towns attributes and have a great comprehensive plan as a guide, we just need to make sure the spirit of the plan is maintained as we go. I would not want to live anywhere else.

Guest Column: Thoughts on outer West Street development

Appearing in The Capital, July 28, 2014

While the Chinquapin Round Road, West Street, Admiral Drive intersection needs to be reconfigured for sure, what I am worried about is the drive-through restaurant development discussed in a recent article.

This kind of auto-centric development will continue to reinforce the “highway” nature of outer West Street. This is exactly the wrong direction for the livability of the Homewood/Germantown area.

An auto-centric drive-through restaurant with its suburban strip mall setback, parking lot and access requirements is bad for the area from fiscal, transportation, planning and environmental standpoints. Auto-centric development is terrible for pedestrians and bicyclists, a significant issue for outer West Street because it is the only direct corridor between downtown and Parole.

The “street” nature of inner West Street is clearly popular with consumers and fiscally successful for the businesses and the city. As a result, the city needs to promote that “street” character westward as far as possible.

As the car dealerships wane in the area and other large parcels of land such as the old Whiskey location become available for redevelopment, the city must carefully consider the kind of development it should encourage. Case studies show reducing auto-centric development of roads and buildings benefits residents, municipalities and businesses. For example, an analysis by the nonprofit Strong Towns in Minnesota showed the fiscal productivity (tax revenue to the city) of the traditional main street development pattern versus a strip mall type drive-through restaurant was 30 percent higher (http://bit.ly/1tJGYeP).

Additionally, it shows this traditional pattern is significantly more resilient to economic changes because there are multiple tenants rather than relying on the success of a single business for the same amount of land. New York City published the results of changes to streets that included upgraded pedestrian and bicycle facilities and reduced auto speeds (http://on.nyc.gov/1pRKn8P). These changes resulted in significantly lower injuries to all street users, increases in retail sales and decreases in speeding, outcomes that benefit everyone.

There are a few encouraging signs of the type of redevelopment that should be emulated on this part of the West Street: 1901 West has been successful because it has incorporated “smart growth” ideas of mixed use residential and retail and simultaneously the additional density has not created “carmageddon” as was initially feared. The new commercial development at 1738 West St. also incorporates similar ideas such as the building fronting the street with parking in the back.

The traditional development pattern in these examples creates places that are oriented toward people, not cars, and is what makes places such as inner West Street so wonderful. In fact, these ideas are entirely consistent with the objectives for the Outer West Street Opportunity Area as specified in the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan, while a drive-through restaurant is decidedly not.

Outer West Street is at a crossroads: We can either have an area where people will enjoy living and working like inner West Street or we can slavishly follow auto-centric dogma that is so prevalent in other parts of the county and creates fiscally unproductive and unsafe environments for everyone.

We need to encourage more people-friendly development and convince the State Highway Administration (who owns this part of West Street) that we want a pedestrian/bicycle friendly “street,” not a “highway” as they consider changes due to any development along this corridor. The city should not let the desire to reconfigure the intersection at a developer’s expense result in a step backward for the area.

And, to be explicit, these comments have nothing to do with the purveyor of the food in the proposed development. As long as the development configuration is done in a positive way for the area, throw in a Burger Barn and a Doughnut Dive too.