Planning for Tomorrow

12 Jan 2012

This morning I attended the first in a series of speaker events organized around the "Tomorrow Plan". Spearheaded by the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (DMAMPO), the Tomorrow Plan seeks to design a coordinated metropolitan strategy for managing the expected population growth over the next 25 years.

Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series - Bill FultonTomorrow Plan Speaker Series - Bill FultonThe headline speaker was former Ventura mayor, Bill Fulton. Fulton now works for Smart Growth America assisting assist state, regional, and local government agencies around the nation with smart growth policies and tools.

All in all, the talk was an interesting if relatively superficial exploration of some of the fundamental issues that necessitate a reexamination of unchecked single-family suburban subdivision construction. He attempted to navigate the waters between advocating for more compact development, and the undeniable political, social and economic inertia driving (so to speak) suburban migration.

Here are some of his key points:

  • Demographic shifts - Baby Boomers and Millennials are the largest population segments, and they are trending away from traditional suburban living (they tend to seek walkable neighborhoods)
  • Sustainable and walkable neighborhoods - According to a National Association of Realtors survey 77% of of people prefer a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, 88% rank quality of the neighborhood higher than home size, and only 12% prefer a neighborhood with houses only
  • Sense of Place in either an "urban" or "village" form is important
  • Current development patterns strain fiscal resources - Low density development rarely pays for itself in terms of initial infrastructure investment or ongoing maintenance
  • Suburban development costs more money to support fewer people - Things like snow removal, elderly transit, and fire fighting are much less cost efficient in low density areas

Sustainability means making sure that a win today doesn't depend on a loss tomorrow.

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Via associate transportation planner Bethany Wilcoxon at the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization:

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is pleased to announce that, effective September 1, 2011, its office will be located at 420 Watson Powell, Jr., Parkway, Suite 200 in Des Moines. The move to downtown Des Moines comes after ten years in the Merle Hay Centre in Urbandale.

File this one under "Walking the Walk" - this is great news! The new address is smack dab in the heart of downtown, where a quasi-governmental planning organization with responsibility for setting sustainable transportation policy should be located.

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Let me suggest the following as an add-on demonstration of sustainable transportation planning: How about a $150 per month incentive for each employee that commutes to work by public transportation, foot, or bike at least 15 days!

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On July 28, KCCI picked up a story listing a location in Clive as one of the top five worst spots to open a restaurant in the country!

Here it is - the building tucked in behind the car wash at 86th and University in Clive:

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The owner blames the former median (which was recently redone with a turn lane to allow automobile access to the site from 86th). A person who works across the street blamed prices and food. City Manager Dennis Henderson thinks perhaps the site would be better utilized as office.

Let me propose the following...

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During the 2010 Legislative session, the Iowa Smart Planning Task Force (Task Force) was created. Since then, the Task Force has been researching, developing, and evaluating policy options to support and enhance integrated smart planning in Iowa. On September 15, the Task Force released draft recommendations that will be part of a report submitted to the Governor and the Iowa Legislature in November.

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The phenomenally bloated 2010 Iowa Democratic Party State Platform has an entire section devoted to planning and zoning:

We support:
201. “Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design” requirements for publicly financed building construction.

While energy efficiency is a laudable and necessary goal, requiring all publicly financed buildings to conform to LEED standards is in my opinion an ill-advised and expensive approach. A better approach in my opinion would be to determine a set of targeted performance-based criteria and encourage creative solutions.

"LEED" is sometimes used interchangeably with "energy efficient" and "green", but it refers to a specific set of standards and procedures implemented by the US Green Building Council. It is an expensive process simply to go through the certification, let alone meet the criteria. There are other established standards that should be explored as well before committing to LEED as a goal.

Even better would be to encourage reuse and renovation of existing structures!

202. Reducing urban sprawl with two-rate property tax on commercial properties.

I'm not sure what this means, but it is not the right way to reduce suburban sprawl. The form of our cities is largely determined by transportation investment. The way to promote centering of development is to invest in transportation infrastructure that encourages density.

Comprehensive transportation and land use planning should occur within a framework of incentives that shift public subsidy from suburban expansion to urban revitalization. Such a revision in priorities would also preserve valuable farm land.

203. Counties issuing zoning permits.

I'm not sure what this one means either, or what problem it is trying to solve. Zoning is primarily a City function. I do believe that comprehensive planning should happen at multiple levels, including state-wide. A discussion on exclusionary single-use zoning is a topic for another post.

204. Enforcing laws protecting ambient air quality.

Yes. We should enforce existing air quality laws.

205. Sustainable, low-impact development.

A laudable goal. The implication here is perhaps that the consequences of "development" can be mitigated by green building. The greenest, most sustainable building is the one that doesn't get built. I believe that it is nearly impossible to have "sustainable" development at the fringes - there are simply too many developable and redevelopable sites within the existing developed areas.

206. “Complete Streets” legislation that promotes safe community transportation networks accessible to all users.

Yes, yes, and YES!

On a side note, one of the few places the Republican and Democrat platforms agree is in opposing Eminent Domain.

Another side note: the Iowa Democratic Party platform is just plain poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly formatted online. Not only does it weigh in at a hefty 382 platform statements, but almost all of them are way too specific to serve as guiding principles - particularly because most of them have no explanation. My advice for the next round: cut it by half and hire a graphic designer to design the publication.

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This summer, the federal government's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities is taking applications for $100 million in grants for regional planning projects that promote alternatives to automobile transportation. Unfortunately, despite some high profile transit and rail projects, most of the stimulus spending has gone or will be going towards roads and highways.

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A recent letter to the editor written by Jon Turner to the Des Moines Register in favor of the MLK extension project falls prey to several commonly-held transportation myths. I want to debunk these myths here.

Come to my Beaverdale neighborhood anytime during peak travel hours and try to cross Beaver Avenue at an intersection that does not have crossing lights.

Traffic control and traffic volume are NOT the same thing. The letter to the editor makes this common error of assuming that reducing traffic volume is the only way to make a street easier to navigate at rush hour. In fact, controlling traffic flow is actually easier than controlling traffic volume - one can plan a control strategy. Volume is a function of a variety of factors, most of which are outside the realm of direct control. What the author can control is his own travel path during known times of heavy traffic.

Adding streets and Interstate connections will NOT reduce overall traffic. It is a commonly known, though not commonly acknowledged, fact that new and widened streets do not reduce congestion. Ironically, they increase congestion due to increasing the total vehicle miles traveled. Until we rethink our underlying transportation system and subsidies for single-occupancy vehicle travel, road additions and widening will remain a game of catch-up.

Let's reduce the number of vehicles speeding through my residential area trying to beat the flow out of town every night.

The author bases his entire argument on the fundamentally flawed assumption that a connector from Downtown through I-80 will reduce traffic through Beaverdale - a neighborhood several miles west of downtown, with no direct street connection. It is just too big a leap to assume that any measurable amount of Beaverdale's through-traffic is people trying to save time by cutting through 6 miles of local streets to get to the northwestern suburbs.

The last time I checked, not one single person lives in the pathway of the proposed extension north of Euclid Avenue.

There are two separate sections of the proposed extension. One section cuts through a protected wetland. The other cuts through an established neighborhood. The author minimizes the impact on the wetlands area (not my area of expertise) and ignores the impact on the actual residential neighborhoods affected by the expansion (my area of expertise).

While there may be valid arguments in favor of the extension, I have yet to hear any that positively and demonstrably benefit the City of Des Moines.

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The Des Moines Register recently published an editorial in part promoting the extension of Martin Luther King drive through a new I-80 interchange to Ankeny. In response, Michael Baldus of the Neighborhood and Natural Recreation Protection Project ( wrote a guest column that was published today.

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Last week, I posted a proposal to convert Interstate 235 from 42nd Street to East 14th Street into a boulevard. One of the reasons a project like this could benefit the city is by reclaiming vast amounts of unproductive land as taxable property.

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Interestingly, after posting the article today about removing the downtown portion of I-235 in order to promote development and reconnect downtown to the rest of the city, I received the following announcement. Local funding for the environmental impact study of the proposed north-south connector extending MLK to I-80 has been pulled, jeopardizing the project!

The MLK extension is a good idea from only one point of view: that of an Ankeny resident who works downtown. From just about every other perspective, it is a horrible plan.

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