Tag Archives: Strong Towns

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.

It was a lot of fun and I hope it was thought provoking, but very challenging to fit more than a few concepts in the ignite format. In reality these issues are multi faceted and never as simple as snarky platitudes. I’ve created this post as an entrance point to help anyone interested in a deeper understanding of these concepts.

To be explicit, the two main takeaways from the talk are:

  1. Zoning and associated regulations can have unexpected results: this is especially true over the long term and often don’t produce what we want/like such as people oriented places we hold in such high regard in Annapolis.
  2. Change is OK and should even be embraced as long as it’s incremental: we shouldn’t use regulations as a way to fight development because it often results in exactly the opposite effect, more radical change

Perhaps we can add change to the Ben Franklin quote “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The question is how do we accommodate change in a way that is not radical? Fortunately we have hindsight from the last 50+ years to learn from. After building cities in a tried and true organic way for hundreds – really thousands – of years, in the space of a several decades, we changed how cities developed without really understanding the long term consequences. I won’t engage in revisionist history and say that we should have know better than to go “all in” on autocentric development because at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. The lesson is not what we did but how we did it. Ultimately, we did not do it incrementally in a way that could see whether this was a good idea or not, rather it was radical and untried and that is the take home going forward: we need incremental and sustainable change.

Let’s consider this as the promise of autonomous vehicles revolutionizing transportation is touted. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

You can watch the live stream here (a better quality version on You Tube is forthcoming): I’m the last speaker at 2:16:10, but I highly recommend watching the prior 14!

There are number of concepts related to this and are discussed below with links to further reading for a much deeper dive on the subjects.

Fiscal Productivity

In the talk, I give examples of “walkable urbanism” and “people oriented places” as opposed to “auto oriented places” (Here is an article that describes each). From a qualitative standpoint, they are pleasant areas and that’s why we like them as I discussed, but there is a more fundamental concept behind them: they are fiscally productive. Fiscal productivity is essentially  whether the development style pays for itself. ie does the area produce enough tax revenue to pay for the services consumed over the long term? The latter part – over the long term or the full lifecycle as it’s called – is the key. We have to consider what the costs are not just to build the initial infrastructure, but to maintain it in the long run and it’s not always a simple question. Typically developers put in infrastructure, a one time cost, and turn it over to the government to maintain, a recurring cost – forever. Might not be tomorrow, but in 20 years when the streets need to be repaved or in 30 years when the sewer and water pipes need service.

Read more on why walkable streets are more economically productive.

There are data unequivocally showing that people-oriented streets are more economically productive than auto-oriented streets — from big cities to small towns, from the heartland to the South. The company Urban3 spends much of their time visiting cities and towns across the nation to analyze their tax productivity, comparing how much tax revenue is produced per acre in different areas. What they’ve consistently found is that compact, walkable places produce far more tax value per acre than auto-oriented places—and that holds true in communities across America.

Read more on why density is the wrong metric for fiscal productivity.

Often people read “compact” to mean just add more density. The question often gets ask “what’s the right answer” on density?  There is no right answer because it depends. Ultimately not all growth/development is the same and it requires one “Do The Math” for for your particular place or city to determine what is sustainable. It’s a function of how much the associated infrastructure around a place costs as compared to the tax revenue it produces (public v. private investment).

Read more about fiscal productivity in the #DoTheMath series.

The STROAD

A STROAD is a street/road hybrid and besides being a very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), they are enormously expensive to build and ultimately, financially unproductive. I single it out in the talk and here because it is so fundamental to fiscal productivity concept.

The following is a short video that will help identify STROADs and then convert them to either a productive street or a road:

and a longer version of this given as a TEDx talk:

If we want to build places that are financially productive and pleasant for people, we need to identify and eliminate STROADs. In the talk I pointed out Upper West Street where it transitions to 4 lanes near the Goodwill in a number of slides and Forest Drive which are Annapolis’ primary STROADs.  Once you have the vocabulary to describe these places, you will explicitly see them everywhere. We need to stop devaluing streets that are fiscally productive by making them into STROADs by attempting to chase away traffic congestion with widening projects. This almost never solves the problem because of the concept of induced demand. You build for cars and you will get more cars. You build for people and you get more people.

Incremental Growth

Read more on what incrementalism is.

So often in the context of planning exercises in the city, I hear the term “we have to get it right”. Given the complexity of cities and our lessons from hindsight, it is very risky to believe anyone knows all the right answers and that if they are followed we can predetermine everything perfectly. It’s fine to set a long term vision as we do in our comprehensive plans, but we should take incremental steps to get there. As I mentioned in the talk, smaller steps are not only more palatable for people who are resistant to change, which is coming whether we like it or not, but it’s also a more resilient strategy. If we make missteps, which we inevitably will, we can correct them to minimize their effect. If we make big expensive and expansive changes, the risk is much larger and the mistakes much harder to correct. For example policies like urban renewal had wide ranging effects on cities because they were done at such large increments.

Read more on Incremental Growth in the Power of Growing Incrementally series.

Related Articles I’ve Written

  • Ignite Annapolis! - Supplemental information for my 2019 Ignite Annapolis talk.
  • 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 […]
  • 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 […]
  • 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 […]
  • 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. 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 […]
  • 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 […]
  • The Kobayashi Maru Test - Last night, the Annapolis Planning Commission faced their Kobayashi Maru test. How will they decide whether access to the Rocky Gorge planned development is via Aris T Allen Boulevard or Yawl Rd: place the lives of Rocky Gorge residents in grave danger by turning off and on a highway or assuring the destruction of the Oxford Landing neighborhood […]
  • 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 […]
  • On Paint and Historic Preservation - The heat is increasing in the dispute between the City of Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission and property owners/artists in the”Arts District” (inner West Street). Good background can be found in articles in The Capital here, here and here. I am certainly not against historic preservation and it has been good for the city, but when […]
  • Why I Ride A Bike - A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016. 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 […]
  • 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 […]
  • 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, […]
  • 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 […]
  • 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 […]

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.

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.”

The Kobayashi Maru Test

Last night, the Annapolis Planning Commission faced their Kobayashi Maru test. How will they decide whether access to the Rocky Gorge planned development is via Aris T Allen Boulevard or Yawl Rd: place the lives of Rocky Gorge residents in grave danger by turning off and on a highway or assuring the destruction of the Oxford Landing neighborhood with 48 homes worth of traffic down their main street?

Followers of this development have been watching this issue come to a boil slowly over the last two years. But, for those not familiar with the development and this issue specifically, let me recap.

Rocky Gorge is a planned development of 46 units of single family and townhouses south of Aris T Allen Boulevard. For a good overview, you can see the site plans here (76MB) or search for project PD2016-001 on the Annapolis eTRAKiT project tracking site for all the project details.

location

The project has a long and sordid history with many, many complicated facets. It began with two annexations of land in 2003 and 2005 followed by development approval (SE2005-11-547) and initial grading, the financial crisis of 2008, bankruptcy and sale to a capital management firm and most recently restarting the development in 2014. This history, while important to how we got to this point, is for the most part, water under the bridge, not to mention that the more you dig into understanding the history, the more questions arise. That said, one of the limitations placed on the development by the annexation agreement was no direct access from Aris T Allen Boulevard. However, that was predicated on a “relief road” south of the development, but for many practical and environmental reasons was never, and will never be built.

As the design and review of the restarted development progressed, due to the access limitation in the annexation, Yawl Rd was the only way in and out, straight through the center of the Oxford Landing development built in the late 1980s. And of course the residents objected, so resolution R-33-14 to remove the annexation restrictions was introduced to the City Council. If passed would open the door to alternative access via Aris T Allen Boulevard.  It wound it’s way through the process and was ultimately passed. I wrote about it here and here and the Planning Commission,  Transportation Board, and The Capital also thought it was not a good idea. Once the restriction was removed, it went to the State Highway Administration (SHA) for a decision as they “own” the road (MD 665). After an additional traffic study and meetings with the SHA, access was granted with addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes.

yawl_access

Rocky Gorge – Access Via Yawl Rd

Once this access was granted by SHA, the site plan was substantial altered to change the access from Yawl Rd to Aris T Allen. As such, the project went back to the Planning Commission, which brings us up to date for the meeting last night and the Kobayashi Maru test.

665_access


Rocky Gorge – Access Via Aris T Allen (right in right out)

The developer’s representative Allan Hyatt gave a long and somewhat tedious presentation. He is a lawyer and every presentation I have seen him make to a city Board or Panel is treated in language and actions like a trial, explicitly stating everything for the record along with expert testimony, even though the Planning Commission does not officially recognize “expert witnesses” (a point of snickering with the chair). This was a public hearing so a number of people spoke, residents, representatives of ARTMA, the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, Oxford Landing, and Alderwomen Finlayson/Pindell-Charles, indicating significant safety problems with either access scenario – deadly car crashes on Aris T Allen or kids run over by cars on Yawl Rd.

Kirk

Those were the only two choices on the table: 1. Approve the application as submitted (design with ingress/egress to Aris T Allen only, other than a pedestrian/emergency connection to Yawl Rd) or 2. Deny the application and revert to the prior approval (design with ingress/egress via Yawl Rd only). Virtually all the Planning Commission members expressed frustration with these equally bad choices. There must be alternatives that would not be unsafe for users Aris T Allen or residents of Oxford Landing, but how? Like Captain Kirk, they chose a different way: leave the public hearing open indefinitely and allow the applicant – who fortunately saw the writing on the wall – to look for alternatives.

It is my hope that all parties involved can think about innovative solutions that attempt to mitigate the compounded mistakes and prior planning decisions that lead up to this scenario and hopefully learn a lesson and apply it future developments. The suburban design pattern of cul de sacs and hierarchical road networks is a detriment to incremental growth that is so important to a healthy Annapolis as it was intended by design to be static and does not scale well. See this short video for a primer on incremental development and why it is important. Much of downtown Annapolis and inner West Street developed this way and has been better off for it.