Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thoughts on Santa Cruz

I'm going a bit out of order here, but my mind today is on Santa Cruz and its interesting history. Like many small towns with liberal universities, Santa Cruz plopped onto the pedestrian mall bandwagon of the late 1960s. By the 1970's, the city had closed off traffic along it's main drag and created a winding pathway through an 80 (or so) food wide swath of maintained public access. Businesses were generally unhappy about the arrangement due to insufficient maintenance of the street and its accessibility to the homeless, yet change is difficult even for the business community and they were unable to reopen the street to traffic.Yet today, Santa Cruz has a downtown that is totally open to automobile traffic. The main drag is incredibly pedestrian friendly and the entire place looks like an advertisement for the New Urbanism movement. What changed? In 1989, an earthquake destroyed (more or less) the entire pedestrian mall. With the car-free inertia gone, the business community was able to force a bit more of their vision onto the main drag.

There are loads of problems associated with having a downtown shopping district but before we get to those, we can use the Santa Cruz example to look into what goes into a good walking district. I think the mantra to keep in mind for any pedestrian area is controlled, enclosed space. If you consider the space between the buildings as the street (the cars stay on the road), it is important that you give plenty of space to pedestrians if you want them to use it. As you can see from the picture above, the sidewalks are ample. With all of this space, it's important to provide enclosure, a sense that you're not wandering around Tombstone Arizona (post on that later).

The cheapest way to provide enclosure is with buildings (they pay for themselves), of which there should be no shortage of in a city. Of course, the buildings are probably not arranged properly to provide enclosure to pedestrians, so you'll need something else; trees work tremendously well, though they take a while to get up to size. Santa Cruz has relied mostly on trees, though there are a few beautiful kiosks that terminate vistas quite nicely. A sense of enclosure is almost never planned into an auto based development because people take their enclosure with them.The third, and arguably most elusive element of a successful district is control. Every inch of the walking district must be stewarded. There is rarely sufficient pedestrian traffic to justify an 80' right of way and that space must be consumed productively or it will become a haven for beggars, ne'er-do-wells and miscreants. It is imperative then that this space be effectively controlled by somebody--anybody will do. While it doesn't particularly matter who takes control from a planning perspective, consider the economics of a situation with an 80 foot wide street. A typical store front might have 20 feet of frontage with 30 feet of street (allowing for an ample 20 foot sidewalk) to design, maintain, police and landscape. While that may seem like an incredible expense, the aim of the business is to create economic value so it's likely they'll find a way to make the situation profitable. After all, they pay rent to be able to do the same indoors.

But that never happens. Instead, the city is stuck holding the bag. They try desperately to landscape, police and maintain thousands of square feet of space. The end result is disaster, either from crushing taxes to pay for the operation or from neglect. In Santa Cruz, the neglect came crashing down during an earthquake. The planners realized that given the space they had, they could provide an excellent pedestrian space while consuming half of it with a road. Roads are incredibly cheap to maintain and they are self-controlling--especially with the aid of some speed "humps". An even more clever solution would have been to fill that space with buildings but there were likely restrictions on infrastructure that would have made that sort of operation particularly cost prohibitive.Now that we can have a wonderful pedestrian shopping district, we might consider some reasons why we shouldn't have one. Pedestrian shopping districts are for tourists, whether they come from nearby or from afar. Nobody lives in them, and there are few jobs outside the retail sector. Except for the most environmentally conscious, these outside tourists arrive with their cars and need a place to park them.Here's the dirty (no-so) secret that the New Urbanists didn't want you to see. These pedestrian districts require an enormous amount of parking. Think mall-sized parking lots and structures. With these valuable parking lots surrounding the walking area, the entire district's growth is stunted. As real estate prices rise, landlords begin to squeeze every penny out of their tenants, and those that can't pay get the boot. That's how unique places slowly lose their charm as their unique and different walking mall full of independent shops morph into a run of the mill out-door mall, full of Starbucks and Cheesecake Factories.

Functionally, these shopping districts are barely better integrated into the fabric of a city than the suburban malls that they compete with. By concentrating creative entrepreneurs and mixing them with tourists, a city exports their brand but in doing so, they slowly starve it. Instead of specializing and separating their districts, cities should focus on diversifying their districts as a method of creating unique character and culture.Cities would be better off promoting increased density and an appropriate mixture of uses. Shopping districts don't seem like a terrible idea, but without incredibly good public transportation for the locals, they are destined to morph into predictable tourist attractions. I suppose they do fit a need, but I would strongly contest any argument that these places should be the model for creating our built environment.

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