Pandemics and Land Planning Article

The following article comes to us from the New York Times. Pandemics have been a part of human history for as long as there have been humans. There is a green light after the red…

Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?

Cities are epicenters of capital and creativity, designed to be occupied collectively. Pandemics are anti-urban, preying on our human desire for connection.

The empty business district of La Defense in Paris, on Monday.
Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
It’s becoming harder by the hour to find the new normal.

We need each other in a crisis like this, but we rightly fear congestion. France and Spain have ordered all cafes and restaurants shut down. In New York, it’s the same, with museums and Broadway theaters on hiatus. Mosques have closed in several countries, churches have canceled masses, and the pope prohibited the public from Holy Week celebrations.

Traditionally, we seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.

particular, urban life. Historians tell us that cities emerged thousands of years ago for economic and industrial reasons — technological leaps produced a surplus of agricultural goods, which meant not everyone had to keep working the land.

Still, cities also grew, less tangibly, out of deeply human social and spiritual needs. The very notion of streets, shared housing and public spaces stemmed from and fostered a kind of collective affirmation, a sense that people are all in this together.

Pandemics prey on this relentlessly. They are anti-urban. They exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. For many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy.

Of course, we now have teleconferencing and an abundance of social media and other forms of remote, digital interaction. We had already drifted toward a kind of social distancing by living increasingly on our phones and in virtual communities, bingeing on Netflix.

Alexanderplatz, a large public square in the center of Berlin, on Sunday.
Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times 

The technology we consume today increasingly consumes us, for good and ill. It is escalating our anxieties with unending access to information and misinformation alike. But technology is also allowing many of us to carry on with certain kinds of businesses and act globally in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation or two ago.

Even so, we still need one other, not just virtually. Ezra Klein in Vox raised the prospect of social distancing causing a “social recession,” a kind of “collapse in social contact that is particularly hard,” he wrote, “on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or pre-existing health conditions.”

There is evidence for this. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, wrote a book about a heat wave in Chicago in 1995, during which 739 people died. That event proved lethal among elderly Chicagoans living in poor, segregated neighborhoods that afforded residents little social contact.

But older Chicagoans living in similarly poor, crime-ridden communities who had access to what Mr. Klinenberg calls a robust “social infrastructure” — a network of “sidewalks, stores, public facilities and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors” — died at a markedly lower rate.

Now those very forms of social interaction put people at greater risk. That’s one reason affluent New Yorkers with second homes in the countryside have been quitting the city in recent days like medieval characters in Boccaccio’s “Decameron” facing the Black Death.

During the last century, millions of urban-dwelling Americans fled to the suburbs. Cities cleared old neighborhoods and replaced them with giant housing projects in vast empty spaces, arguing that crowded urban slums had become petri dishes for disease.

But people have been moving back into cities even as technology has created myriad new ways of connecting remotely. Cities have become epicenters of new capital and creativity, because proximity breeds serendipity and strength, from which new ideas and opportunities arise.


The Great Court in the British Museum in London, on Monday.
Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times 

Economists have talked about this urban migration in terms of dollars and cents. But the human value of shared space is ultimately incalculable. After 9/11, I visited the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, where crowds had gathered. I asked some people there what brought them to the museum. They said they wanted to remind themselves of life and beauty and tolerance, and to seek strength in one another.

During the blitz of London, in World War II, the British Home Office ordered all theaters, concerts halls, movie houses and other public gathering spots shut, leaving residents to meditate on their grim fate at home.

The exception was London’s National Gallery, whose director persuaded authorities to let him keep one painting on public view (the picture was periodically changed, so people had reason to return). The gallery also organized a series of lunchtime classical music concerts.

Going out meant risking life and limb. But Londoners waited in lines that stretched out the front door of the gallery and across Trafalgar Square, hoping for seats. When a German munition fell on the gallery shortly before one concert, the audience and musicians relocated across the square to South Africa House. A few days later, when a 1,000-pound unexploded bomb was discovered in some rubble outside the gallery, the event was moved to a distant room and no one budged when the device was detonated during a Beethoven quartet.

The war shook the confidence of free and open democracies to survive a grave global threat. Modest though they were, the concerts gave Londoners hope, reminding them why they lived there and together.

Today’s threat is altogether another sort of challenge to solidarity and our way of life. It is not a heat wave or a blitz. It can’t be mitigated by going to concerts or museums. It requires isolation.

We will need to figure out a different approach, together.

Great Example of Mixed Use Development

Project Design Consultants (PDC) has been fortunate to have been part of the design, permitting, and development of multiple mixed use projects in the San Diego area. This example comes to us from Northern California; the reuse and adaptation of large car dealerships and strip malls will assist in addressing the chronic housing shortage felt throughout California. This article was published in Fast Company.

Why this Toyota dealership is turning its car lot into apartments

Housing is so scarce in Silicon Valley, and property values are so high, that one Toyota dealership is building housing on top of its car lot. Others may soon follow.

Like many car dealerships around the country, Toyota Sunnyvale, a seller of preowned Toyota models, is almost entirely an asphalt parking lot. There’s also a showroom and sales office, and an extensive back section for maintenance and repairs. But primarily the space is a big lot full of cars.

[Image: courtesy Dahlin Group]

With property values on the rise in this part of California, smack in the middle of Silicon Valley, a huge lot of used cars is no longer the most economic use of the land. “The underlying value of the property overwhelms the potential value of the franchise,” says Adam Simms, whose company, Price Simms Auto Group, operates the Toyota dealership in Sunnyvale and several others throughout the Bay Area.

[Image: courtesy Dahlin Group]

“The single-story model of a showroom, a service department, and display lot is becoming cost prohibitive, even for some of the best brands in America,” Simms says. “So it forces us to think about how we maintain a presence in these expensive markets where there’s a lot of car business to be had and still make the economics work at the dealership level.”

One solution is to make the land do more. Simms’s company is now in the process of redeveloping the site into housing, a much-needed resource in the heart of the bustling tech industry. But the dealership isn’t going anywhere. Instead, the two uses are being combined, with the car dealership housed at ground level and an 88-unit apartment building slated to sit above it. It’s a new type of mixed-use development that may become even more common in the years to come.

[Image: courtesy Dahlin Group]

“We certainly have an affordable housing shortage here in Northern California, and we can’t build fast enough to meet the needs of the market,” Simms says. “So if we can leverage that problem with a solution as well as use that to support our retailing position, it just makes sense to bring them both together.”

[Image: courtesy Dahlin Group]

Dahlin Group Architecture Planning, a design firm with offices in California and Washington, is designing the Sunnyvale project. John Thatch, the firm’s director of design, says this is one of several car dealership conversion projects the firm is working on, and that as cities densify, more dealerships and other types of retail will likely begin to think about similar conversions.

“A lot of the old retail sites, basically they’re just old. And they’re being replaced, whether by other buildings or by the internet,” Thatch says. Increasingly, retail sites like car dealerships are located in the parts of cities that are seeing new demand for housing and mixed-use development. “So that’s a big area that excites me,” Thatch says. “We take these spaces that are parking lots and we create mixed-use projects and we bring people in and make this world more walkable.”

These kinds of projects make clear sense for the car dealers, who get the financial benefit of redevelopment. But they make even more sense for cities, which see new housing rise in connected commercial areas while still retaining the dealership and the tax revenue from its sales of high-priced cars.

The Sunnyvale project will reconfigure the Toyota dealership to have its showroom and sales offices on the ground floor and a mezzanine, with maintenance and repair facilities in the basement, a few floors of parking above, and a four-story apartment complex on top. The footprint of the site, mostly asphalt at present, will soon become almost completely built out. There will even be space for five single-family homes at the back of the site.

[Image: courtesy Dahlin Group]

Architecturally, the challenge is to make these two different uses coexist. “I think a big part for us is how to create distinct entries for both,” Thatch says. There’s also the issue of noise, which he says was solved in this project by putting the maintenance facilities in the basement, and buffering it from the residences with a few levels of parking. The project also raised some other unexpected questions, like how to orient courtyards for residents so they don’t feel like they’re overlapping with the commercial side of the project.

“How do we bring all of that stuff together? It’s a new challenge,” Thatch says. “I think it’s an interesting concept to really create housing, another way to do mixed-use, another way to bring people and energy to an area. Around the world there are examples of this, but it’s sort of hitting the suburbs that are starting to densify.”

Thatch says approval on the project is expected to come soon, and construction could begin within the year. For Simms, this is just the start. He says plans are in the works to convert two or three of his other dealership locations. “It’s out of necessity,” he says, citing the rising land values in the Bay Area. “But it goes from necessity to opportunity.”

County, UCSD team up on Zero-Carbon Plan

This article appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune in late January 2021. This action is consistent with the Board of Supervisor’s desire to create a fully adoptable and implementable Climate Action Plan.

County leaders are teaming up with UC San Diego to create a blueprint for reducing the region’s carbon footprint to zero by 2035.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Wednesday to contract with UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy to draft a plan that would establish a framework for zeroing out carbon emissions that cities through the county can embrace.
San Diego’s largest challenge in the fight against climate change will likely be reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks. The region’s sprawling auto-centric design and limited public transit will take decades to overhaul.
The move comes just weeks after the board — now controlled by Democrats for the first time in modern history — committed to redrafting its climate action plan. A previous version of the document was struck down in court based largely on a provision that would have allowed developers to buy their way around restrictions on climate emissions using carbon offsets.
The proposal to draft the zero-carbon plan was spearheaded by recently elected Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Nora Vargas. The move came after nearly 1,500 residents signed a petition demanding that leaders take bolder steps to curb global warming.
“Residents are demanding action to fight the climate crisis and decarbonize our region,” said Lawson-Remer, “and this is a new board that is committed to listening to the public and putting our children and planet first.”
The new plan will prioritize low-income communities of color, which are often the hardest hit by climate change, Vargas said. “While progress has been made through the implementation of various cities’ climate action plans, our region must do more through collaborative action.”
Republican Supervisor Jim Desmond supported the zero-carbon plan but urged the county not to take actions that would make it more difficult to build new housing. Environmental groups have, in recent years, successfully sued developers and the county to block rural housing developments that would’ve significantly increased tailpipe emissions.