Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Centered Bay Area -- A Better Way to Grow

May 27, 2010

"Centers" for the San Francisco Bay Area

                The Bay Area is a thriving metropolitan region, the fourth largest in the United States, with three  anchor cities in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, and a complex, extensive and stunningly beautiful geographic setting of hills and water on the Pacific coast.   Its population is somewhat over seven million, and it expects another million people in the next fifteen years or less.    How will the Bay Area handle this growth?   Where will it put its next million people?  
                Our region now settles its new households mainly on its outer rim in single-family houses and townhouses linked by freeways  to the region's more central Bayside areas, where older settlement and jobs are concentrated.   Land and houses on the edge are less expensive than buying housing closer toward the center, but living in a dispersed way at a distance means long commutes, almost invariably by car.  Dispersion and commuting add up to great expense over time, not only in money from family budgets, but in many hours of time spent driving, and in gasoline, which becomes CO2, and other forms of pollution.   Despite the initial apparent savings at the time of house purchase, in the end, the "sprawl" style of life, for  a large population and over decades, is extremely inefficient and costly.   Has our national  swoon since World War II for the car, and the way of life it brings, been a great self-indulgence that looks less smart and sound in retrospect?    We certainly still spend time, money and energy in driving which we could be using for education, healthcare, family life, or for greater social equality and ending poverty.  Can this huge bloc of "sprawl" expense in American life, monetary and beyond monetary, be reduced as the country inexorably continues to urbanize,  or, more accurately, to move into metropolitan regions?   
                Yes, this burden can be brought down.   The way to do it is to come together and settle in sufficient proximity to one another, that is, with sufficient density, that we can use much more collective rather than individual transportation.    Would this mean concrete-gray city life, with no privacy, security, open space and green nature?  No, it does not have to mean that kind of urbanization, which many Americans, and certainly Californians, traditionally shrink from. 
                The key to escaping from the car reliance that lays an annual tax approaching $10,000 per car on all of us, is for the region's cities to build in the form known as transit oriented development (TOD).  Or, much better, in the higher form of TOD which can be called walking transit oriented community  (WTOC),  in which people live close enough to their transit connection, and to most of their community services and activities, that they walk to them.  They do not take a car to a BART, Caltrain, MuniMetro or VTA station that is surrounded by big parking lots.  Density, of course, can be just thrown together, or accumulated over time, but a transit oriented settlement could also be structurally and carefully designed to be clean and safe for adults and children, and so that green and open space for sports and recreation, and for being outdoors in the California climate, can be abundant and very nearby. 
                How would that be done?    Such a walking transit-oriented community (WTOC) can be called a "Center, and will be built around a BART, Caltrain, or similar trunk transit stop.   If many Centers were constructed, we could speak of a Centered Bay Area.   In a network such Centers would strengthen the transit system and each other, and  collectively could take a good share of the million new people the region expects to receive in the coming decade-plus.
                What would such a Center look like?  It would be of substantial size, because it should not be a niche facility that serves a subset of the population, such as the rich, or the poor or the old.  Rather, it should have enough capacity to hold all sorts of people, many with their jobsites, and to mix them as much as they want in community life.   Let's say 10,000 people.   How far is walking distance to the transit stop (perhaps underground or elevated) that will be at the center of the Center?  Let's say at most  2,000 feet, or a little less than half a mile, with perhaps some provision also to use bikes within the Center.     A circle with a radius of 2,000 feet around a station gives an area of about 12 million square feet, or 288 acres.  Putting 10,000 people there gives a density of about 35 persons per acre, not remarkably high.   But, if we house that population in that space in the one-and-two story dwellings that are traditional in American suburbs, we basically cover all the area, and that's the end of the green space. 
                Here's  a turning point in the design.   The solution is to move the cultural middle-class norm from a single family house to a spacious, well equipped, owned apartment, and to harvest the huge space gain from stacking residences one on top of another.   Achieving space for "open space" is the first rationale for moving toward mid-rise and high-rise buildings.  But it is also true that a smaller proportion of the population than in the past now lives in the nuclear-family-with-children demographic group for which the single-family house developed.  Secondly, the life of many urban upper and middle class families in the last hundred years in the United States and Europe makes it clear that children can grow up just fine in apartments that have as much interior space as traditional single family houses and have safe access to green space nearby.
                Now we're most of the way there in designing a better pattern of living for the next swathe of the Bay Area's growth between now and 2025.  Let's look to Copenhagen for the way to put density and open space together, using the very traditional form of the "street"  (which becomes a pedestrian/bicyclist path rather than carrying cars) arranged in a "fingers of the hand" pattern, but around a full circle.   This creates pie wedges of open space, which add up to about half of the Center's total area.   This open land will serve small uses such as community gardens, neighborhood swimming pools, tot lots and basketball and tennis courts toward its narrow point, and serve larger uses such as soccer fields, baseball diamonds and groves of trees in the wider outer portions.   Living sociably along the pedestrian "street" which leads to the transit hub, lots of people and kids are literally three steps from the open space.   It becomes their backyard.
                Automobile roads and parking are put entirely underground, not necessarily immediately, since excavation is expensive, but eventually.   This means that the Center's entire surface is free of the noise and danger of car and truck movement and also of the huge space encumbrance of parking, although there will be provision for rare use of the surface pedestrian walkways by emergency vehicles.    
                We want to make housing in a Center be of high quality, and also want very seriously to keep its cost down.    Although, as in Vancouver, B.C., some townhouses will be mixed in, a key building block of the Center is the prototypical mid- or high-rise structure, mainly residential, but often also with a couple of floors of "mixed use" at its base.   This building is a challenge for architects.  It is envisaged in this paper as a "slender tower,"  as pioneered by Hong Kong and  Vancouver.  The  slender tower form eliminates two unattractive drawbacks of most urban multi-story buildings: daylight that comes only from one side of the apartment, and a dismal internal corridor on each floor with doors on both sides.  The building aspires to be both "solid" in its feel, and light in its construction, using the newest materials and construction technologies available -- or even to be invented.   Apartment ceilings should be high, floor space allowances per person should be generous, and careful attention be given to acoustic protection of each dwelling space.   It could be possible to pre-fabricate, on-  or off-site, a set of highly designed light-concrete floor panels.   These, fitting into a steel or reinforced frame, would form the floors of apartments above them and the ceilings of those below, while carrying water, radiant heating/cooling, and electricity conduits, serving both upwards and downwards.   In the relatively mild climate of California at least, provision for radiant heating/cooling need not extend to the edges of the floor plate but could serve only an inner core to be used on our rare cold evenings and very hot days.   Every possible energy (and especially fossil  energy) efficiency in the use of the building would be sought and exploited--for example, HVAC based on heat pumps, permitting CO2 -bearing natural gas supply to be omitted.  The goal is to supply good internal space for a construction cost as close to $200 per square foot as possible.   Since we are fighting high initial costs, apartments could well be sold in a loft-like unfinished state, with residents creating their interiors over time at their convenience.
                   If cost minimization is to extend to the very  substantial "soft costs" of such a project, common purpose and cooperation, rather than divergent interests and antagonism, between the developer and the local municipality is a critical need.   Thereafter, there are efficiencies in end-user financing methods, such as an initial rental period of hire-purchase when a household first moved in.  A regular extra payment above the normal rent, which a family could consider to be its savings program, could accumulate into an equity stake in the dwelling unit, eventually enabling the household to be in an ownership  position, and regular mortgage to come into force.
                 Indeed, if the WTOC features of a Center allowed a family to own only one car in place of the normal  two or more cars per household that are required when living in sprawl, the saved cost of not running one car over a generation would come close to paying off the cost of a generous condominium.   The family's residence would then be owned free and clear, which is a big part of the entry ticket to the middle class in our society.  It would be capital accumulated for the next generation of the family.   Such a transforming gain is far more than what is left after owning a series of rapidly depreciating second family vehicles over thirty years.   This provides an insight into the costs of sprawl, and the social and economic gains for a household from avoiding them.
                In the early 1960's as air traffic and airport construction boomed around the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration was troubled by the huge internal walking distances that were arising within airports.  The agency commissioned the renowned architect Eero Saarinen to develop an alternative prototype at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C.   Saarinen's airport was a strikingly beautiful compact structure in glass and concrete that used specially designed people-carriers to move passengers out to aircraft that  did not have to cluster around a lengthened periphery of the building, but rather parked at a distance and received passengers by means of the "mobile lounges."   The elegant building was highly efficient, certainly for the passengers, but the experiment did not succeed.  As new airports were built around the country, airlines dictated gigantic versions of the one-plane, one gate system rather than the Saarinen plan.  Eventually even Dulles itself built an annex in the old style.    Nonetheless, the experiment was an honorable and constructive one.  
                Similarly, since the various feature of a Center are interlocking, it should be built as a whole, and it is a very large whole --  a multi-million dollar investment that the traditionalist housing sector, with its municipal planning and zoning side as well as its finance-dominated market side, would not easily underwrite in the near future.   Although a Center incorporates many major long-term economies through its greatly reduced car use and its density and compactness, some of a Center's important elements, such as multi-story buildings and underground parking and car circulation, are indubitably expensive, although they will have long service lives.  
                Think about the huge daily costs, inadequacy and damage of our present "sprawl" metropolitan layout.   Support for building one, or a small number, of test prototype Centers in the Bay Area would be a potentially very rewarding intervention in the Dulles tradition by a higher level of administration, such as a full metropolitan region, a State, or even the Federal government.

(See following post for a Sketch-up drawing, and a table, supporting this text.)

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