Stack and Pack vs. Smear All Over

22 thoughts on “Stack and Pack vs. Smear All Over”

  1. Just as we talk about retrofitting the suburbs, are there ways to retrofit these pseudo new urbanist superblocks? (Thanks Johnny for explaining about pseudo new urbanism. The CNU needs to tackle that one.) and yes I know, to retrofit requires doing away with more regulations than it requires enacting.

    1. Well, I suppose it would be possible to convert the ground floor apartments to retail? Possibly even adding family homes above the shops on the lower rise developments, by combining apartments with internal staircases?

      1. At the moment none of that is legal or socially acceptable. However, after another fifty or sixty years when these buildings are well past their prime other options become more likely.

  2. Scottsdale does not want high density over the entire city, which extends 20 miles from north to south. Instead, the city offers areas with high density – such as Old Town and the Scottsdale Quarter – and areas of low density – such as the estates in Troon and Pinnacle Peak.

    The northern two thirds of the city cannot increase in density, because the area must have lots of natural vegetation, to absorb rainfall from flash floods descending from the mountains, that would otherwise flood the entire city. Scottsdale’s elevation is 4500 feet in the north, down to about 1000 feet along the Salt River (on the other side of Tempe). Here’s a map of the ESLO lands (Environmentally Sensitive Lands Overlay) –

    The southern third of Scottsdale does not want any more of the smart growth towers, due to increasing crime, drunkeness near the bars, and traffic congestion. The founding fathers do not want Scottsdale to become “Tempe North,” or “Phoenix East.” Nevertheless, the downtown area near Old Town is a great high density walkable area for young folks, with lots of entertainment venues, along with nearby lower density master planned communities such as McCormick Ranch, which consist of a mix of homes and condos where you can walk or bike downtown on the greenbelt. This greenbelt also serves as part of the drainage system due to flash floods – it’s a desert. You’ll enjoy this link to the greenbelt, there is nothing like this in any other Southwestern desert city –

  3. Dublin, eh? This is a tough one. On the one hand, those condo superblocks are providing relatively affordable housing for the new family that wants to live in a good school district but still maintain a link (BART) to big city jobs and lifestyle. That’s HUGE for the Bay Area and cannot be discounted.

    On the other hand, as you point out, it’s soulless faux urbanism, doesn’t really reduce traffic much and is a direct attack on the suburban lifestyle of the region. I do sympathize with the old timers who see farmland being gobbled up for yet another Olive Garden inspired townhome block. Even if said farmland was more of a theme park than a reality.

    In other words, there’s simply no good options. Well, there’s Texas for the suburban set and Portland for the urban types. Oh yeah, Sacramento’s just sitting out there waiting to be called up too but it’s got that tax rate problem so…

    1. You hit it on the head. “Texas for the suburban set and Portland for the urban types.” For most people the solution to the California housing crisis is migration out of the state.

      I understand that “Texas” and “Portland” are perfect for some people. But Portland isn’t cheap anymore and Texas… well, Texas is following the same trajectory as California only Texas is a few years behind in the cycle. It won’t end well there either, although Texas has a little bit more time before things get ugly since they got a late start in the game.

      In 1970 the smartest thing anyone in Ohio or Michigan could have done was move to California and buy a house. There were only 11 million people in California back then, the economy was rapidly expanding with a growing middle class, and property was relatively affordable. These new arrivals would have ridden a giant wave of prosperity up for decades while the Midwest declined, lost value, and depopulated. Today there are 30 million people in California, property is unbelievably expensive, and the economy has sharply bifurcated into haves and halve nots. (Don’t be distracted by the old Liberal vs. Conservative argument. This was a multi-decade bipartisan process with plenty of blame to go around.)

      Today the smartest thing anyone can do is leave California and move to the Midwest. The decline is over. Every bad thing that could ever happen has already occurred. Property is ridiculously inexpensive. And there are hundreds of amazing towns and cities, many of them mostly intact pre WWII places with amazing bones, just waiting to be reactivated. You don’t have to fight to get New Urbanism built. The Old Urbanism is already there. You don’t have to struggle with retrofitting the dead mall into a faux “Town Centre”. There are already real town centers you can move right into. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cincinnati… They’re all much better than people in California imagine. And with the $500,000 you save when you buy your house you can go on a really long vacation to the Caribbean each winter.

      1. I don’t think the Rust Belt is Plan B for those priced out of San Francisco. It’s not just walkable neighborhoods but an entire West Coast culture & lifestyle (real or imagined) that people want and identify with. That’s why Portland is booming but Buffalo is not. Sure, Portland is overpriced but to a Californian’s eyes, it still looks cheap. Now for someone with Brooklyn in their heart, Buffalo makes a lot more (emotional) sense…

        1. Brian – Fair enough. But I met a number of people in Buffalo who had recently relocated there from Los Angeles as well as NYC. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the “West Coast culture” (real or imagined as you say) stops existing when you earn $12 an hour and pay $1,800 a month in rent. The other thing you need to keep in mind is that Portland wasn’t “Portland” until pretty recently. It was once a sleepy backwoods town with a mediocre economy. It become the Portland we know today because of the mass migration of ex-Californians who brought their culture with them and reinvented the place – much to the chagrin of many old time locals. I have an elderly uncle from Oregon who loves to say, “When the pioneers came to a fork in the road with a sign that pointed to California in one direction and Oregon in the other, the people who could read went to Oregon.” Portland isn’t cheap any more. Neither is Seattle. Forget about San Diego or San Francisco. Unless you have cash on hand or existing real estate to sell off in a more expensive location you need a more affordable town.

      2. The Texas trajectory will be worse than California’s. Because Texas is simultaneously following a “mining boomtown” trajectory — with oil. One huge boom starting in the 1920s that is just starting to go spectacularly bust. Simultaneously with the dynamic you were identifying for California.

  4. Johnny – To be more specific on lot sizes, I do think that a quarter acre is a good size, since in the Post WWII era, nobody complained about “growth.” But, as lot sizes began to decrease and congestion increased later in the past century, then growth management became quite popular. You’ve likely read Dr. Bob Breugmann, in “Sprawl: A Compact History” who describes that lot sizes have gradually decreased . . .

    Second, “” on your billboard photos … Because they have “Agenda 21″ all over their web site, then they’re not a good organization to be opposing “smart growth towers” (i.e. “stack and pack housing”). “Agenda 21″ is from the United Nations, and the UN absolutely does not “control” any city or planning organization in the Bay Area.

    Third, “Plan Bay Area” is not on page one of their web site. It’s on a second page, and the posts are dated 2013.

    “Densification” of urban centers is the result of a variety of factors, mostly related to money. Developers love to make billions of dollars from their towers. So, they use “dark money campaigns” to get their candidates elected, to expect something in return. That was exposed here in Arizona, in Scottsdale. If it was researched in other cities, I’m sure that one would find the same problem.

    So it is Republicans who oppose Agenda 21. But OTHER Republican Developers pay Democrat Councilors with dark money to get their towers built.

    1. Tom – you need to get off the Republican/Democrat corruption and tyranny thing. I understand that it’s tempting to blame cronyism for all that ails society, but there has always been corruption everywhere. Crooks can build great places just as honest men and women can screw things up. Let it go.

      The real issue in your part of the world (the Phoenix metroplex) is that there used to be 300,000 people and now there are 4,200,000. If you put all those people in faux hacienda style tract homes on quarter acre lots the place becomes unmanageable. The solution isn’t sprawling into the next ten counties. The alternative isn’t “density” with stacked apartments and stacked parking decks and stacked strip malls and stacked office parks either.

      The solution is high quality urbanism: vibrant, mixed use, truly walkable neighborhoods with excellent public spaces. Unfortunately no one in Arizona remembers how to build such places and the general population associates this sort of construction with inner city slums and opposes it at ever turn. So Phoenix is getting a hybrid compromise of low quality high density car oriented sprawl. That’s the problem and there is no solution.

      Suck it up or move…

      1. Actually, Phoenix and Scottsdale both have lots of examples of master planned communities that are walkable and bikable, without the superblocks and smart growth towers, which are a recent addition, opposed by most residents. For example, in Scottsdale, there is McCormick Ranch, DC Ranch, McDowell Mountain Ranch, and Greyhawk. The City of Carefree, Arizona, designed by Tom Darlington in 1951, was Arizona’s first master planned community, with homes and condos integrated around the central sundial plaza area.

        Therefore, Arizona already has what you are advocating. The City of Scottsdale is one third open space. And, more developments are under developement, such as Vistancia in Peoria.

        A tall “Smart Growth Tower” on a superblock can never be part of a walkable, bikable community since it clogs the roads with traffic. With too much traffic, people do not walk or bicycle due to the noise and fumes. In McCormick Ranch, most condos are two stories high, spread out along the central greenbelt in Scottsdale, where people enjoy walking and biking into Downtown Scottsdale.

        Scottsdale and Northeast Phoenix are a mess, since developers have used dark money to buy their candidates on the city council to build tall smart growth towers. This is explained in these posts:

        You may be confusing the “older” areas of Phoenix and Mesa, where homes were built by the thousands on a grid system (like Los Angeles), whereas the distal suburbs like Scottsdale have the master planned communities. Just like Los Angeles, downtown Phoenix was designed to be of minimal importance to the metro. Life in the Phoenix Metro area takes place in the suburbs. Scottsdale, in contrast, has a very vibrant downtown for a city of about $225,000. Actually, Scottsdale has two downtowns that are very dense, and very walkable – 1) Old Town / Scottsdale Fashion Square, and 2) Scottsdale Quarter (more conservative)

        In Phoenix, Desert Ridge is under development with apartments and entertainment, but again, it is too crowded and very congested since the towers occupy “superblocks.”

      2. Francis Fukuyama explains in his latest books that ALL forms of government deteriorate, apart from eternal vigilance, to “patrimonialism” i.e. Crony capitalism over time. ALL.

  5. I did not state, nor did I imply, that everyone should live on 10 acre parcels. I said that smart growth at the high densities required by Washington, Oregon, and Plan Bay Area, are not appreciated. People who dislike Plan Bay Area’s density mandates have visited Oregon, Washington, and Boulder. They do not like what they see, so they oppose plan bay area’s density mandates. Tall buildings obscure views, have more residents and therefore contribute to higher traffic volumes, and cost more in terms of utilities, making rents more expensive. Tall apartment towers are expensive to rent, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Houston or San Francisco. In fact, the Texas housing bubble from oil profits is phenomenal. The average rent in Dallas and Houston is $1500. The oil industry and fracking need more regulations but that’s another story!

    The average rent in Las Vegas, where most residential towers are three stories are less, is $1000. Most people in the one to two story downtowns that I mentioned above absolutely do not want Smart Growth Towers in their cities. They have height ordinances to prevent things from getting out of hand. I forgot to mention Sedona and Cave Creek, AZ where it is two stories. In Sedona, there can me no more than 12 apartments per acre. Ojai, Sedona, Cave Creek, and Palm Springs, with height ordinances, are some of the cheapest places to rent in the Metro L.A. area, at about $1000 a month.

    1. Palm springs is about as far from Los Angeles as Bakersfield or San Diego are. To consider those part of the Metro L.A. area at the current moment is like considering Philadelphia, Newark, Trenton, Wilmington, Baltimore, and New York City to all be in the same metro area.

      Trenton isn’t cheaper than new york because it’s shorter, and palm springs isn’t cheaper because it’s shorter either. They’re cheaper because they’re at least 90 minutes away from the most major employment centers.

  6. The anti-Plan Bay Area folks in the Bay Area are no different than anti-smart growth folks anywhere else. They’ve been to places such as Boulder and Seattle, and do not want tall, 5 to 7 story “smart growth residential towers” built all over the place along with light rail lines. These are way out of scale, as you point out. The housing density required by Plan Bay Area forces high density. The end result will be more of these monstrous Smart Growth Towers, and massive traffic congestion. The same thing has happened under the Washington and Oregon Growth Management Acts. Taxpayers in all three density increasing scenarios will be forced to widen streets and pay for more freeways.

    But there are plenty of places with low density downtowns that are pedestrian friendly and very nice, without heavy traffic, and without – as you correctly state – “superblocks.” Consider downtown Auburn (CA), Truckee (CA), North Lake Tahoe (CA), Mammoth Lakes (CA), Pismo Beach (CA), Ojai (CA), Palm Springs (CA), Ashland (OR), Canyonville (OR). Most buildings in these places do not exceed two stories in height, and the downtowns consist of mixed use with parks.

    Also, Republican contractors sometimes build the Smart Growth downtowns with their tall towers. The Democrats on city councils (or, even Republicans, as in the case of Scottsdale, AZ), make the high density plans, however, they hire Republican contractors to build the towers.

    Smart Growth is not green, but what is truly green is your other post on the Hawaii Greenhouse!

    1. If everyone in the suburbs around the Bay Area lived on a ten acre parcel do you think that would solve everyone’s problems? It doesn’t scale up. The green house in Hawaii only works because there are so few people living on the island. I’ll do a few more posts on Hawaiian urbanism so you can see what good and bad urbanism looks like there.

      1. Here’s a good example of a Superblock (your excellent description) here in Arizona. These three story Smart Growth Towers are in North Scottsdale, about 15 miles north of Downtown Scottsdale, and, 25 miles north of Tempe –

        You are very perceptive to call this a superblock! Not only is this a superblock, but it’s totally gated off. It’s a fortress. Although, I’m not opposed to gated apartment communities; I wish that mine was gated. However, this one is clearly too large, too tall, and too dense.

        One would think that Republican Scottsdale would not have Smart Growth Towers. But unfortunately, they are going up all over Scottsdale, Tempe, Phoenix, and even Flagstaff. Currently, certain members of the Scottsdale City Council along with community groups are becoming active against the “dark money” that is behind the scenes. That’s one reason I support Bernie Sanders for President, as he pledges to get rid of the dark money. And, I won’t be the only one as South Scottsdale, Tempe, and Downtown Phoenix are solidly Democrat.

        Look at this mess, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert –

        Here’s the South Part of the Superblock –

        1. I understand (and largely agree with) your concerns. But you’re confusing apples with oranges in many of your comments.

          What you’re seeing in Scottsdale is an intensification of land use based on higher land values. In 1950 vacant land was cheap and abundant in that part of Arizona so it made sense to build three bedroom ranch homes on one acre lots. There were only 300,000 people in the entire Phoenix region back then. Now there are 4,200,000. Today there’s tremendous market pressure to put more people on each acre of land.

          The fortified super block you sited is not Smart Growth or New Urbanist. It’s a plain old 1960’s era apartment complex with a pool, club house, and surface parking that’s been super sized and updated for the current market. This is a profoundly suburban building type and there’s absolutely nothing new or different about it. If this same exact amount of construction and land were organize so there were corner shops, offices, and public parks – and if this complex were seamlessly integrated with neighboring developments – it could be a charming Main Street neighborhood of the kind that you and I both prefer. Density isn’t the problem here. Segregated, single use, car dependent design is the problem.

          Scottsdale was originally built with an infrastructure designed for a low intensity land use pattern. Now that the population is increasing there are far too many drivers on the roads. Walking and biking are generally not an option since the distances between things are far too great. So there are three options:

          1) Forbid new construction/densification and force all growth to the edge of town.

          2) Encourage new construction to be built in a truly walkable, open, mixed use manner and provide high quality dependable pleasant alternatives to driving.

          3) Build density to satisfy market demand but do it in a car-oriented hopscotch manner that isn’t walkable or pleasant and suffer the resultant congestion.

          As far as I can tell there are examples of all three approaches in full swing in the Phoenix metroplex. Pick your poison.

  7. You’re right to want something else, and that something else is the system that actually produces small-scale urbanism gradually. I wrote about this a bit last week in regards to sprawl retrofit.
    In essence, we’ve set up finely-tuned systems that produce bigness. And bigness is the antithesis of the kind of urbanism you’re talking about. And incidentally, there’s lots of room here for cross-political support, since a substantial amount of conservative thinking is opposition to bigness as well. The old line that big government and big business love each other is quite true in reality

    1. Kevin – I’ll be posting a few stories on incremental ad hoc urbanism which I believe is the antidote to the Big Government/Big Business approach that both the Left and Right seem to hate. The challenge is that the slow organic approach is comprehensively illegal and socially unacceptable almost everywhere these days. I have to go to some pretty odd corners of the country to find good examples. I just can’t imagine these kinds of places being embraced by the larger American society on any level that will make a difference. At least not given current circumstances. But circumstances may change… so it’s good to have a few irregular options on hand for the future.

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