Does Your Town Need an Authentic Asshole?

atlanta bootcamp crowd shot
Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp – October 2015

 

One of the themes I have seen following the recent election, is that many people are tired of being talked down to by people who seem to think they are better.  Call it a backlash against smugness, for lack of a more precise term.  Recently I proposed that for people trying to build better places, the alternative to smugness would be to become authentic assholes. I am serious on this point.  Authenticity appears to be the quality that lets you get a partial pass on being an asshole, as long as you don’t talk down to people..

I’m directing this approach to the Architects, Engineers, Planners, Policy Folks, and Academics who are members of the Congress for the New Urbanism or similar place making advocacy groups.  If being the fancy people who know stuff, (the people perceived as smug or condescending) is not working, then let’s not be those people.  Let’s be authentic assholes.

The fire marshal’s mandate is not a collection of sincere feelings that we should help the community process through group hugs. It’s bullshit that hurts the town. Some asshole needs to call the fire marshall out for being part of a calcified over-reach that makes no sense.

Off-Street Parking minimums? More bullshit that needs to be called out. Municipalities completely suck at guessing how much parking is going to be needed for all possible land uses, and the community was wrong to give them that job. The result was they picked numbers that produced fewer complaints and phone calls. Some asshole needs to call out that lazy bullshit in stark terms and poison the well. Make the position of advocating for such nonsense so awful that anyone who defends parking minimums (or maximums) is discredited for being a lazy bullshitter.

You want to make a difference at the local or regional level? Become a developer or a builder. Free yourself from the shackles of propriety and elaborate argument. Every community needs people who can build and rebuild the place. That’s where we can find our place in the moral, economic, and cultural fabric of a place. Architects, Engineers, Planners, Academics have a professional obligation to at least appear to be interested in making the city a better place with ideas. People who are fearful see a host of horrible outcomes, real or imagined, when ideas are advanced in clumsy ways disconnected from the base concerns of daily life. Developers and builders are not burdened with those expectations and when the dust clears there are buildings built or rebuilt, people find benefit in the buildings or they don’t. (–Keep in mind that the bar for a decent building or street is quite low many places). Nobody expects virtue from a developer. They may look to exact virtuous action from the developer under duress, but they really do not expect it as a natural expression of what is in the developer’s greasy soul. An exaction or tax is often given reluctantly, out of resignation.  An unexpected gift can be a sincere expression of our better nature.

This is a framing thing. When New Urbanists propose a better place that starts to sound like some kind of utopia and the built effort that follows only delivers 68% utopia, folks get disappointed and pissed off because their high expectations (however unreasonable) have not been met. If a developer commits to meet all local codes and regulations and to deliver something the market seems to want and the built result is 32% utopia, people are accepting and sometimes even happy, because their low expectations have been exceeded.

Be virtuous in your heart, but don’t wear it on your sleeve. Be cunning and deliberate. Have a plan for your neighborhood. Gather resources that others cannot access. If we can be the people who actually get stuff built during a recession (And that stuff doesn’t suck), if we can build well, despite the severe shortage of skilled construction labor, who is going to mess with us at the local level?

If you would like a glimpse of what an insurgency of Small and determined developers might look like, wander over to the Small Developer/Builders Group on Facebook and see what those folks are talking about. We worked to keep the group fairly politics-free. If you are not on Facebook, find somebody who is and they can guide you.  Come to a Small Developer Workshop where you will meet folks who are serious about making a difference in their neighborhoods (even if other people think they are assholes).

Nobody suspects virtue in a developer. You can pick the opportunity to surprise them. Under-promise and then over-deliver.

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Parking Hysteria is the norm -and that ain’t right

on street parking in queens

I was in Southwestern Michigan recently where I encountered an odd idea about parking on the street.  In many of the residential neighborhoods you cannot park overnight on the public street.  I asked if this was to facilitate snow removal during Winter months.  I was told that the ordinance is in effect all year.  Maybe there was a freak blizzard in July in years long past and that event lead folks to want to err on the side of caution.

Parking is a volatile subject.  Anyone who has ever be frustrated trying to find a place to park is an expert on the subject without applying any effort or legitimate mental rigor to the topic.  Proposals to change parking rules can whip up the kind of hysteria that makes you question the mental capacity of folks you used to hold in some regard.

What does this mean for a small developer looking to get relief from the municipality’s minimum parking requirements?  Don’t assume that common sense will prevail.  Parking can be such a hot button issue that it clouds the minds of otherwise reasonable people.  If you want to challenge or change the local parking rules, you really should not expect grownup behavior from your neighbors, city staff, or elected officials.  Don’t base your project on an assumption that you will get any reduction in parking, particularly if that relief will require a public hearing.  You may be able to get some relief, but don’t count on it to make your project pencil.

Many municipalities are getting rid of minimum off-street parking requirements, recognizing that cities have done a lousy job of guessing how much parking is going to be needed for any given use.  Other cities have figured out what a nifty tool charging the right price for parking is for managing the supply of public parking in desirable areas.  These islands of common sense are still too rare.  Professor Donald Shoup has done excellent work debunking common parking myths.  I recommend reading his book The High Cost of Free Parking (now in paperback) to anyone serious about understanding how to manage parking issues.

If you are not ready to read a 700 page book about parking, I recommend this short paper by Prof. Shoup as an illustration of how warped and hysterical everyday thinking about parking has become: Roughly Right or Precisely Wrong  Parking Bloat is needless and wasteful.  It is born of myth and sloppy thinking.  Providing alternatives will require clear thinking and well-informed local leadership, (so it is going to take a while)…

 

Parking Hysteria, Sloth, and Indifference

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There is a relationship between how woefully uninformed people are about parking and how epically they lose their shit over parking problems.  I am really tired of explaining the basics of modern parking management to people who seem incapable of using the Internet.  Here are the highpoints from Donald Shoup’s fine book The High Cost of Free Parking:

  • Recognize that all public parking is not equal.  Some spaces more convenient than others, so price them accordingly.  The spot at the curb in front of the coffee joint should not cost the same as the top floor of the seven level parking structure.
  • For retail areas, price the parking at the curb for a 15% clearance rate. Raise the prices for curb parking until you reach the point where when 15% of the spaces are available.  Reduce the price of parking in a rational gradient, the further away from high demand the cheaper the space.
  • Make it easy to pay with a credit or debit card or with a phone app.  Phone apps that message you to ask if you want to add another hours are particularly handy.
  • Folks that live in residential neighborhoods close to areas with high parking demand like universities, hospitals or retail areas get bent out of shape when the public parking spaces at the curb in front of their house gets a lot of spill-over parking.  This can be solved through the use of resident parking permits and the sale of parking permits in that area for daytime hours.  Proceeds from the sale of the permit can be used for public works and parks within the neighborhood by setting up a Parking Benefit District.

Folks that don’t care enough about solving their parking issues to use these proven tools need to get a real problem.  How much sympathy or patience fan you have for difficulties born from sloth and inattention?

Asking Nicely for Something that should be Really Obvious —(Again with the Parking Thing)

Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.
Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.

Parallel parking at the curb provides some important and useful things:

  • Slower traffic.
  • A formidable barrier between passing cars and people walking on the sidewalk, so walking feels safer.
  • Parking spaces located close to where people are actually going.
  • Parking spaces without any additional circulation lanes (and additional impervious surface).
  • Greater flexibility for building on private parcels.

So if you want to build in a place that does not allow parallel parking on a public street and requires way too many off-street parking spaces on the private parcel, it is usually worth the hassle to ask for a variance or exception to the rules that are on the books.  Sometimes this decision is made by a municipal staffer like a Zoning Examiner or Planning Director.  Sometimes special permission for something really obvious, (like a better parking arrangement) will require the approval of the Planning Commission or even the City Council.

If you are asking for on-street parking or a reduction in off-street parking It is important to make that ask in the context of a thoughtful project .  When you show the amount of on-street parking being provided, the reduction in the number of off-street spaces seems like housekeeping item and not a big deal exception or some completely exotic one-off variance.

Just to be clear , (since it is often all about how you ask), don’t just ask for a reduction in something that is on the books as a black and white requirement that everyone is supposed to follow. Show the reviewer, commission, or council the whole project and ask for the reduction as part of that larger conversation. When you demonstrate that you are doing more, doing better than a lot of what they are reviewing, relief from a number in the zoning code seems like a minor accommodation needed to get to a good outcome.