How Do You Build A Town For People -- Not Cars?

Flagstaff planner regales Payson officials with how his town dealt with its addiction to the automobile to create real neighborhoods

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Payson could reinvent itself as a town where you barely needed a car, enjoy busy and social parks and public facilities and thriving businesses that could rely on neighborhood trade, a Flagstaff town planner last week told an absorbed and attentive roomful of the town's movers and shakers.

All it takes is a complete rewrite of the general plan and zoning code, endless meetings with a head-throbbing array of groups and years of patient effort.

The tenets of the planning doctrine of the "New Urbanism" is sweeping towns and cities nationwide, all based on renegotiating the Faustian bargain with the automobile that has driven urban planning ever since World War II.

"It's the automobile that's really our nemesis," planner Roger Eastman said of the decades of post-war planning that yielded distant malls, strip malls surrounded by acres of parking, homes far from stores and shops and a street scape dominated by the hurtle of cars down wide, soulless streets.

The reaction to strip malls, tyrannical freeways and a cityscape that requires people to get into the car for separate trips every time they want a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee or an aspirin took root in Flagstaff several years ago and has remade the entire planning process, Eastman told about 80 people gathered in the Payson Town Hall last week, including the bulk of the town council, planning department and key committees and commissions.

"I'm a recovering town planner," joked Eastman, getting a laugh from the room full of planners, in reference to his attempt to wean himself from an addiction to enabling the town's addiction to the automobile.

Instead, the "new urbanism" attempts to create a compact, mixed set of neighborhoods more like downtown Bisbee or Jerome than like the distant setback of strip commercial uses that line the highway frontages through Payson.

The use of a so-called Form Based Zoning Code divides key areas of the town into circles on a map that represent the distance a person can cover on a five-minute walk. Planners then try to concentrate within those neighborhood zones residential, commercial and retail uses -- so that people in that area can fulfill most of their needs on a five-minute walk, Eastman said.

Moreover, setbacks, street widths and amenities would all be designed to promote an active street life, rather than to move cars through neighborhoods as quickly as possible. The new approach to planning deliberately narrows streets and slows traffic, to create the sort of space that would nurture a sidewalk café instead of the current grid of arterial and feeder streets to move as many cars as possible from one side of town to the other.

"It meant rethinking how we did everything," said Eastman.

But he said that the design of modern cities make it impossible to be "that happy green guy" who savors the street life of his town, rides his bike, minimizes the use of his car and participates in the public life of the neighborhood.

Eastman said the effort to reinvent Main Street provides one example where the precepts of the New Urbanism could be applied to Payson planning. The development of large tracts of undeveloped land near the Airport represents another opportunity -- as does the vicinity of Town Hall, he said.

Repeatedly in the years-long process of rewriting Flagstaff's zoning ordinances to accommodate the new urban style, they came up against unexpected problems.

The people who loved biking threw a fit when they discovered that the new approach would narrow streets so much that they would squeeze out bike lanes.

"I might as well have dropped a bomb at the first meeting I said that," recalled Eastman.

But then he explained that with cars moving more slowly, the bikes could safely mingle with traffic without a bike lane, he said.

On the other hand, the planners needed many long meetings to work out the concerns of snow plow drivers about proposed street side parking and the fire department, worried about the increase in multi-story buildings and the difficulties of maneuvering ladder trucks down narrower streets.

One of the solutions to the concerns of the fire department was to require sprinkler systems in new residential units in the new, higher density neighborhoods.

The planners also faced major questions about recent state ballot measures that give property owners a right to seek compensation any time a city action affects the value of their property.

Since the overhaul of the general plan and the zoning ordinance affected many property owners, planners worried they would face big legal problems.

However, they essentially made the zoning changes voluntary -- so that property owners could keep their old zoning if they preferred. Since the new code essentially increased densities and shifted towards more mixed uses, most land owners accepted the changes because it increased the value of their land, said Eastman.

All told, the Form Based planning approach, was built around a number of key goals, including:

  • Create a discernable urban area
  • Provide commercial and retail within a five-minute walk of residential
  • Put shops and offices at the end of these residential clusters, so they could draw business from both people in the neighborhood and major streets outside the neighborhood cluster
  • Create neighborhood streets that are narrow and shaded
  • Provide schools kids can mostly reach on foot
  • Create interesting civic buildings
  • Put buildings closer to the street
  • Provide parking on the street, along alleys and in the rear of buildings
  • Increase building heights and densities
  • Ensure that a resident can fill all their daily needs without leaving the district
  • Promote healthier lifestyles the promote walking
  • Integrate historic and cultural resources
  • Increase business, revenue, jobs and downtown revitalization

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