How Not to Do Public Consultation

I went to a merchants’ meeting tonight at the Downtown Overland Park Partnership that was led by a senior planner from the City of Overland Park.  He was there to talk to local merchants and landowners (I was ‘representing’ my dad, but really I just am interested) about the changes the city is proposing to zoning and codes for Downtown Overland Park as part of the new vision for Overland Park.

Personally I think there is a lot of potential in Downtown Overland Park (my family’s ‘hood for over 50 years) for growth and development, and I’m excited about the changes.  That apparently did not come across to the planner when I was talking at the meeting.  He got incredibly defensive about every question I (and a developer) asked, wanting to focus on very broad concepts about what the city is planning.  Come on, this visioning process has been going on for at least 2 years, if not 3.  Everybody generally gets it.  It’s time to move on to how this is actually going to be implemented. Even though I didn’t always agree with my former boss, he was usually right on the mark when it came to town centre revitalisation strategies, and he always focused on the implementation aspect.

Note to that senior planner at the City of Overland Park:  you don’t represent yourself, the city, or your presentation topic well when you immediately get defensive and downright rude.

Kansas City Good

Kansas City is incredibly green in the summer, particularly in the more established areas.  When I go to a high point in my neighborhood and look out across the area, I pretty much just see tree canopy.  Kansas has the right climate for large deciduous canopy trees to flourish, while Sydney’s climate better supports sinewy eucalyptus.

Kansas City also is great from a cost of living standpoint.  The median household income in the Kansas City metro area in 2006 was $52,359.  In the Sydney metro area  the median household income in 2006 was $60,000 AUD ($47,821 USD at 2006 average exchange rate).  Now compare these incomes to the median house price in each city:  In Kansas City the median house price in 2006 was $186,196.  In Sydney it was $523,000 AUD ($416,846 at 2006 average exchange rate). Sydney’s housing cost 2.2 times that of Kansas City’s, with a lower median household income. Wow.  Kansas City is so much more affordable than Sydney. Maybe it has something to do with my last post about amenity and availability of land for development…

It’s All About Perspective

I was reading back on one of the firsts posts I wrote for this blog that was about all our different plans for this year off (you can refresh your memory here).  One of the questions that I wanted to answer for myself was ‘Why has Sydney been getting such horrible built form outcomes?’  Before leaving Sydney, I often lamented about how much of the new buildings going up in Sydney, particularly residential apartments, were low grade, poorly designed pieces of crap.  I generally blamed the Residential Design Code* that was the de facto control document for apartment buildings in Sydney (and the rest of the state).  It seemed like developers were just using the code as a pattern, without really putting any effort into making what they were building an actual distinct place.  Then I moved to Kansas City.

As I drove home tonight along Metcalf Avenue (the main thoroughfare near my house), I went by building after building of low slung suburban office blocks surrounded by a sea of parking.  Then I drove by house after cookie cutter house that was ‘traditional’ (vinyl siding, maybe some faux brick thrown in, asphalt shingles).  If I had continued south I would have hit mega-block after mega-block of strip malls and (now mostly vacant) car sales lots.

Suddenly the ‘horrible built form outcomes’ in Sydney aren’t looking so bad.  At least there is some attempt at different facade treatments, truth in building materials (buildings that look like the are made of brick generally actually are!) and some commitment to providing a good public domain.

But Sydney and Kansas City are two very different beasts, in scale, features and in economy.

Sydney’s property market seems to be perpetually hot, particularly in the inner suburbs, near the harbour, and along the coast.  Lots of people want to live all in the same place, so land values are going up and density is increasing.  Sydney’s natural features also serve as a barrier to growth, with mountains to the west, national parks to the north and south, and protected habitat and species all along the fringes.  In Sydney, the state government drives strategic planning of the city’s growth, (hopefully) ensuring that there is a coordinated vision for how the city will grow, backed up by research to support it.

Kansas City on the other hand has no real ‘magnet’ to draw people to one location and has a plethora of land for expansion.  Even its downtown is pretty weakened by the ‘edge city’ suburban commercial development that (in theory) allows people to work where they live (as long as they move to where they happen to be able to get a job and never change jobs).  With nothing to draw people to want to be in one location, Kansas City keeps expanding outwards, and the cities keep zoning more and more land for commercial and residential development.  Each city in the metro area tries to grab the most land as well as the most retail and commercial uses, in order to increase revenue.  The result is an oversupply of commercial and retail zoned land (and probably residential as well) that has no real basis on the current and future demand for those uses.

I’m not trying to say that there aren’t any nice parts of Kansas City, because there are, or that Sydney doesn’t have any ugly parts, because there definitely are, it’s just that it’s interesting how my perspective has changed based on my surroundings.

It also highlights that maybe I need to stop being so pessimistic.  Ok Carolyn, next post- positive Kansas City!

An Open Letter to Humboldt Park

Dear Humboldt Park,

I think I’m in love.  You’re what so many people are looking for.  Nice, well proportioned apartments overlooking a beautiful park with views to downtown Chicago.  A community centre with a work out room that only charges $150 a year.  And a synagogue!

Now if only my sister would give me keys so I could actually leave the apartment.

Let’s never break up,

Carolyn

Instant Gratification

Today I spent the afternoon driving all over Overland Park as the whim to buy something hit me.  My total driving radius from my house was 5.4 miles.  My average bicycling radius in Sydney was 1.8 miles.  Kansas City with Car = 3 times greater than Sydney with Bike/Public Transit.  Big Surprise.  Anything beyond that required serious thought about whether or not I wanted ot bike there or figure out public transit.  Even when I was living at the in-laws and had access to a car, I didn’t just hop in the car and drive to a bunch of places.  It was just to hard to get around the city, find the place I needed to go, and get parking.

Maybe it’s because Kansas City has the most lane-miles per capita than any other city in America.  Or maybe it’s because I know metro Kansas City better than metro Sydney.  Or it could be because Kansas City is 50% carpark (no, I can’t back that up).

As I was driving around to wherever I wanted to, I realised how cars give us the ability to have instant gratification.   You can pretty much get to wherever you want whenever you want.  No wonder cars are king.

Streetscape

This street is illegal.  It’s too narrow so the terraces don’t have good solar access, there isn’t enough width for amenity such as trees, and there are privacy issues.

This is one of my favorite streets in Sydney.  It’s in Paddington/Surry Hills (kind of on the border) near COFA.  Walking through it is incredibly pleasant because the space is so well defined and the plants outside each terrace provide detail and interest.  Kids can play in the street because cars aren’t allowed (some of the terraces have garages in the rear with lane access).  Though it is a bit weird you can get so close to people’s windows.

In Sydney, most Council’s development controls plans and Landcom’s (the state development agency) Street Design Guidelines wouldn’t allow this street to be built today.  I doubt any city in the US would let it be built either.  True, allowing streets like this could easily result in undesirable outcomes, the whole reason for built form controls.  No one wants slums.  But when we control too much, maybe we remove the opportunity for interesting places to happen.

Trumpet Man

In Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD there’s a guy who rides his bike each Friday (every day?  I only went through Martin Place on Fridays) to play his trumpet for the morning commuters.  His song choice is quirky and his playing his sublime, but his music transforms the space from an area I just want to get through to a place I want to linger.  With just one trumpet.

We urban designers and architects tend to think that we can create great places just through pavers and trees and facades.  Sometimes (most times?) maybe a place is great because of the people and activities in it, not because of how it looks.  So what does this mean for those of us in the built environment industry?