Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Urban Form and Zoning

After a two week excursion to my beloved Duke City, I am armed with more ammunition to produce more blogs. Well, that and I also have a week of downtime before embarking on another adventure in urban design and planning.

I had the opportunity to ride the Rail Runner to Santa Fe, visit family on the northwest mesa, bike ride along Tramway, ride the new Rapid Ride 777 bus as well as the 66 along all of East Central, and walk around downtown, Nob Hill, and Uptown. My observations reveal a growing distaste for the attention to form around our city, unfortunately. I want to note that I see positive signs for the future, particularly through UNM's design studios and various citizen groups.

Yahoo! displayed Albuquerque as the travel destination on my homepage. Taken from Rough Guides, "Like Phoenix, it's grown a bit too fast for comfort in the last fifty years, but the original Hispanic settlement is still discernible at its core, and its diverse, cosmopolitan population gives it a rare cultural vibrancy. Even if its architecture is often uninspired, the setting is magnificent, sandwiched between the Rio Grande – lined by stately cottonwoods – and the dramatic, glowing Sandia Mountains."

As a resident, the cultural vibrancy becomes apparent and the built environment becomes less important, I think. My two year absence, however, has somehow allowed these details to amplify.

I have seen the sector plans which call for density along "Centers and Corridors," per the Comprehensive Plan. But what centers and corridors are they referring to? A UNM design studio just completed some design work for the International District on East Central. But there is a new sign and construction for a suburban style CVS at the intersection with Louisiana. The downtown 2010 plan adopted nearly a decade ago calls for form-based codes which dictates that no buildings within the boundary shall be designed with such set backs and parking lots. However, just over the boundary along Broadway, they have built a drive-thru Starbucks and Carl's Jr. The city took it to a whole new level and created a giant retention pond at the gateway to downtown complete with chainlink fencing. Does no one at the city see this? The head planner, the architects, engineers.....anybody?

I've slowly begun to understand the connection (or lack thereof) between the entities involved in the making of these decisions. The fact is, there is no connection, or communication, between the entities. In an effort to reduce traffic congestion, traffic engineers have been given the green light to run the show. Clearly, these engineers have little to no understanding of their influence on the way we live. They live within the boundaries of their code books and traffic analysis which, till recently, was the full extent of their duty. However, the times are changing as they say. Universities are beginning to realize the error in this approach by teaching young professionals to reach consensus across disciplines. This technique has begun to save the construction industry huge sums of money by eliminating the extraneous coordination efforts required after construction has begun. Clearly our city's planning department has not heard of such methods. Ironically, today there was a post at Duke City Fix which touches on this topic with discussion about the much-needed pedestrian crosswalks in Nob Hill. Mike Riordan's apparent arrogance regarding his knowledge of the "criteria" to achieve such ends is emblematic of the attitude at city hall and the planning department.

Meanwhile, Denver continues to pave the way in progressive development practices. They have been the posterchild for urban revitalization for nearly two decades now as well as for mass transit (light rail AND streetcars). Architectural Record featured them in an article about their latest approach to zoning and the urban form. They are in the process of implementing form-based codes citywide. Albuquerqueans are adamant about blazing their unique path and being unique, but other cities are actually taking action in proactively planning and coordinating their futures. These can provide wonderful lessons and ideas that can aid in shaping the way we plan. It's our duty to make sure our leaders are getting the message...and if they're not, we need individuals in charge who will.

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