Boulder has about 100,000 citizens, and about 100,000 jobs. Of course, a lot of us aren’t working. Some of us are climbing bums; some of us are four years old; and some of us are climbing bums staying home to take care of four year olds. 50,000 people commute into Boulder every day to work, and about 10,000 leave the city to go work somewhere else, for a net influx of roughly 40,000 workers, making up for those of us too old, young, lazy, or busy to have a so-called “real job.” (The kind you tell the IRS about). That’s a lot of people moving around, and a lot of lonely driving, since around 2/3 of those commuters are in single occupancy vehicles. If only there were more places to live in Boulder, especially more places that service employees could afford, maybe so many people wouldn’t need to move around. This is how the story goes anyway, and while it’s not quite that simple, I think it’s close to true given the 5:1 ratio of in vs. out commuters.
One of the few remaining large tracts of low-density land within Boulder’s borders is the light industrial area between 30th St. and Parkway, straddling the Pearl Parkway, between Valmont and Arapahoe. The northern portion of that area is now slated for redevelopment, following the 2007 Transit Village Area Plan (TVAP). The general idea of the plan seems to be to create an eastern downtown locus, and to eventually have an urban spine running through central Boulder along Pearl St. and Pearl Parkway, from 9th St. all the way out to Foothills Parkway, and to ensure that transportation within this urban core is functional by de-emphasizing the use of private cars and providing excellent connectivity to the rest of the city via transit, foot, and bike. Additional regional mass transit connections are also planned to this eastern core, including both BRT and rail. As a human powered urbanist, this idea sounds great to me, and much better than the ocean of asphalt and big boxes that 29th St. unfortunately turned into. I’d love for Boulder to accept the role of being a small city rather than a big town, while aggressively enforcing the existing well-defined geographical boundaries, and avoiding high-rise buildings. If we can pull that off, then we will have an interesting, beautiful city of intrinsically human scale, and I can’t think of a nicer kind of place to live. I haven’t been around for the years of debate leading up to the present situation, instead being preoccupied with graduate school, and unsure whether I would be staying long enough to actually see anything actually get built. But now I plan to be here, have the time to pay attention, and am interested to see what happens.
Plan Boulder County and others seem pretty unhappy with the TVAP as it stands now, in part because in the current fiscal climate, it’s unclear whether the planned rail line will materialize in anything resembling the original timeframe. That would be a shame, and building a transit oriented development around transit that’s not there seems more than a little sketchy… but the BRT will be cheaper and more flexible anyway, and easier to expand service on once the dedicated lanes are in place. Furthermore, even without additional transit links the area is centrally located and Boulder just isn’t that big geographically. With good local connections by bike, foot, and frequent all-day bus service, I would contend that this kind of density should already be supportable in central Boulder — but only if the cars are tamed.
I have more sympathy for the other reasons Plan Boulder County seems unhappy about the TVAP, namely that it’s actually going to end up being fairly car-centric, and will not have much in the way of public space. I haven’t seen previous revisions, but the current one doesn’t have any major plazas or car-free streets. There are two modest pedestrian spaces specifically called out: one a small plaza next to the rail terminal, and the other a pocket park on the city owned property between Goose Creek and Pearl Parkway. Other than that (and the pre-existing greenways), the streets will be the public realm. That can work well; downtown is pretty awesome. Outdoor cafe seating is nice for a lot of the year. However, making streets into good public space — again — means taming the cars. In my experience, cars and humans are virtually incompatible users of space in the US. For example, at Caltech (a very small university in Pasadena, CA), drivers could (legally) come onto the footpaths to get to a few interior campus parking spots or to make pick-ups and deliveries, and then (illegally) drive like they owned the place despite a 5 mph speed limit. In other places (like Holland) this tendency has been successfully mitigated, but in the US, I have yet to see it really work. With the right physical impediments, I’m sure it can be done, but drivers are surprisingly stubborn. However, even if the cars are effectively subdued in the human spaces, they still take up an enormous amount of space when parked. Surface lots destroy the horizontal human scale of an urban center, and multi-story structures are much more expensive than most people think; often $20k-$40k per parking space as a capital cost or $100-$200/month in equivalent rent.
Junction Place Village
One of the first properties to be developed as a part of this plan will be 3100 Pearl Parkway, on the south side of Pearl, just east of 30th St. It’s currently known as Earl’s Saw Shop. Earl sells and repairs chainsaws. There’s also a stoneyard and some other gravelly industrial bits. However, Scott Pederson Development Inc. has decided to take the plunge, and devised plans for a four story, 319 unit rental property called Junction Place Village, made up of 4 buildings straddling the to-be created Junction Place, which will be a low volume bike and pedestrian priority street running north-south in the area. There will also be 7 commercial units on the ground floor, and two floors (really 1.5) of subterranean parking. Being the first to build out in a new area like this does not sound easy, when it’s unclear what the place will end up looking and feeling like, what habits people will develop, or exactly who the neighbors will be. Even if you take the plan at face value, and build for the surroundings you imagine will be there in 10 or 20 years, that’s a long time to wait to see if you were right, and in the meantime, what you built can seem inappropriate, and generate negative responses from the public, or on your bottom line, which makes it all the harder for subsequent developers to get the rest of the place built out, even if the plan in the end is sound.
I was invited to represent Community Cycles at a city workshop last week, looking at the design of the streetscape facing Pearl Parkway on the north side of the proposed buildings (However, the opinions in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of Community Cycles). Kurt Nordbeck and Fred Ecks were also there from CC, and I think more than half the attendees rode their bikes, including the head city planner Sam Assefa, which was awesome, and completely different from Pasadena. At the very least, most people around the table knew the experience of riding a bike around Boulder, often on the streets too — not just the bike paths. Ahead of time, I found the designs that Pederson had submitted to the planning board for site review. They’re in the planning board meeting packet from September 16th. It includes floorplans, elevations, street cross sections, information on the parking provisioning, and much more. I also looked through the TVAP from 2007 to see what kinds of constraints the development was operating under, and what the City’s overall expectations for the area are. Here’s an excerpt:
The Pearl Street Center District will become a high-intensity mixture of housing and retail, capitalizing on its central location and the future regional bus facility. [...] Junction Place will be the spine through the district. It will include a bridge over Goose Creek and a new traffic signal at Pearl Parkway. At the south edge of the district, a new multi-use path along the North Boulder Farmer’s Ditch, with an underpass at 30th Street, will significantly improve pedestrian and bicycle access. [...]
And here’s what the proposed floor plan looks like at ground level:
The yellow is rental units, the purple is commercial space. It’s four buildings, two on either side of the to be constructed and signalized intersection with Junction Place. To the north is Pearl Parkway.
Parking Parking Parking!
I know, it might seem like I have some kind of fetish, but if we screw up the parking out here, little else is going to matter.
Other than the on-street curb spots, all car parking in the development is to be underground, accessed via Junction Place. The parking, as per the TVAP guidelines, is somewhat restricted; there’s only a single space for each rental unit. It’s also unbundled, meaning that you can rent an apartment independent of your parking space. If you need one (or even two) you can rent them separately. This means that if you’re like me and don’t own a car, you need not pay for space you’ll never use, as you would be forced to do with most rental properties. To mitigate the problem of residents simply parking on the street nearby, a “general improvement district” (GID) is being formed, and the curbside parking spots will be either metered or permitted. The expectation is that something like 500 people will ultimately live in the complex, 180 of whom will thus not be parking there.
I know some people will cringe at that last statement. Hundreds of people living here with no cars? You must be talking about students or the indigent! (Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?) Pederson is doing cash-in-lieu of affordable housing units, so these are all going to be market rate. The units are a little smaller than the Boulder average, and are expected to rent for slightly less than comparable dwellings elsewhere in the city. The idea is that unbundling the parking costs will attract a disproportionate number of people to the development that don’t need a parking spot, and make those who do have cars think twice about their vehicle. As I’ve shown elsewhere, these parking spaces really are expensive. Not charging for them directly doesn’t make the costs go away, it just makes it impossible for people to make rational economic decisions based on those costs. The spots in the underground lot at Caltech cost about $25,000 each. I asked Scott Pederson what he thought the construction costs of a Junction Place parking spot would be, and he guessed $15,000-$20,000, which is equivalent to ~$100/month (contingent on his financing costs). He was optimistic that they would be able to recoup those costs in parking rents. I hope he’s right, otherwise future developers may fight the parking restrictions more aggressively.
The right amount of parking, in my mind, is the amount which results in prices which can cover the cost of construction and maintenance. If people don’t want to pay for their car storage, I don’t see why they should be allowed to have cars. After all, if you don’t want to pay for gas, you don’t get to drive either. Unfortunately, parking has been made artificially cheap and plentiful for so long in the US, that we have societal expectations about the cost of parking which are completely unrealistic, and so it’s pretty unclear what the right number of parking spaces is going to be out in the Transit Village. Over-estimating and under-estimating the demand for parking will have different effects.
At one extreme, in the unlikely event that it turns out separating parking costs from rent has no effect on demand for parking (i.e. if parking demand is truly inelastic), then the market clearing rents on these housing units will simply adjust downward by however much people are paying per month for their parking spot, and the overall amount that they pay will be the same… except that there will be a bunch of people with nowhere to park their cars. There are two obvious solutions to this. In isolation, the landlords could charge more for their scarce parking resource, and turn a profit, providing a bigger incentive for the folks who wanted to park there to figure out how to live without a car. Alternatively (or maybe subsequently) separate parking structures could be built nearby, and spots there rented out. Currently, it’s expected that a large parking structure will be built directly across the street at the new RTD hub, with space initially for 400-500 cars, and the potential for later expansion as additional transit services come online. This facility could potentially be used in part as a parking buffer/overflow facility to take up the slack if the maximum parking supply mandated by the city turns out to be significantly below actual parking demand when the real cost of providing that parking is made transparent to the users. This might be especially attractive since overnight and weekend residential parking at the nearby high density developments will likely be inversely correlated with normal RTD park-n-ride demand curves, resulting in the same edifice serving multiple uses, and being more completely utilized. Assuming RTD wants to play this game, of course.
Unfortunately, today all RTD park-n-ride facilities offer free parking for the first 24 hours, and many of them (though none of the ones in Boulder) are free for as long as you care to park there (up to the 30 day maximum). If the price of parking in the RTD or city parking facilities is subsidized, and priced at less than the cost of providing the service, then this will depress the value of the limited supply of unbundled rental spots within nearby developments. Additionally, the RTD parking structures that charge after the first 24 hours currently offer a discounted rate to those who live nearby as an incentive to get people into the transit system. This is exactly the opposite of what we’d want to do for residents of the Transit Village, for a couple of reasons. First, this discount would act (as with free parking) to depress the value of the rental spots, making transparent market pricing for parking unattractive to developers and their financiers. Second, anybody living within the Transit Village area will be within easy walking and biking distance of the transit hubs, and should not be given any additional incentive to use this scarce resource unnecessarily.
The plan is to significantly increase the activity and number of overall trips in the Transit Village area, without increasing the capacity of the major roads serving it, by ensuring that those net additional trips are made by foot, bike, mass transit, or high occupancy vehicles. If we want to use transparently priced parking in the service of that goal, it has to be impossible to park in the area without paying. People can be incredibly stubborn — sometimes to the point of economic irrationality — when it comes to finding a free parking spot. If they know there’s a chance, they will unhappily drive around in circles hoping to get lucky, creating congestion for everyone else, and residents will happily take up whatever free parking is available in the area before considering renting a spot underneath their apartment.
Unfortunately, cities don’t always consider this kind of behavior (don’t ask me why). Pasadena had an almost identical situation with some of its reduced-parking transit oriented developments along the Gold Line. In Pasadena, you can only park on the street overnight if you’ve got a permit, and you can only get a permit if you can show that you have more vehicles registered at your address than your address has parking spaces. However, if you can show that, then you get a sticker, and pay $67 a year, which rounds down to a big fat zero when compared to the cost of owning and operating a vehicle. The city was surprised then, that the TOD at the Del Mar Gold Line station (pictured above) experienced no change in car ownership rates or the number of commute trips undertaken in single occupancy vehicles. They were also surprised to get complaints from the neighborhood surrounding the development, which now had very little available on-street parking. The city feels the experiment with restricting parking in a TOD was a failure. I think it so too, but in a completely predictable and avoidable way. To make it work, they would have had to exclude TOD residents from the on street parking permits, forcing them to pay ($5/day) for spots in the structure underneath the station. (I once climbed down into the structure when it was just a giant hole in the ground while walking back to Pasadena from Eagle Rock at 3am with a shopping cart. But that’s another story altogether…) This would have been the same as effectively unbundling parking in excess of the allotment that each unit had gotten. Why they didn’t just unbundle all the parking from the get go, I have no idea.
Or Too Much?
If the city overestimates how much parking people will want when they’re paying its real price, or if they do not effectively charge market rates for parking at the curb and in nearby structures and lots, then the failure will be different. If there are still vacant spots in the Junction Place Village garage when the managers are charging the construction and operation costs, then they will have an incentive to reduce the price in order to maximize the overall revenue that the garage generates, by increasing the number of occupied spots (since at that point, the construction costs are lost anyway). In effect, this means that either (as per usual) the non-drivers in the building will end up subsidizing the drivers, or the building managers will end up eating the difference. The first is contrary to the TVAP and is not equitable in any case, and the second will make investments in the Transit Village less attractive to developers. Both are failures. If there is excess demand from other car-trip-generators in the area, then a successful recovery from the overestimation might be possible, by allowing others to pay market rates to park in the underutilized structure.
Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m some kind of Miltonian free-market zealot, but to my mind all this strongly suggests we need create an efficient, transparent market for parking in the Transit Village. Successfully being able to guess the demand for parking with a price, on a case-by-case basis, seems unlikely. Adjusting marginal parking supply in the long term and doing high resolution spatial and temporal variable pricing in the short term seems much more tractable. We need to remember though, that in order for this market to work, it needs to functionally include all the parking in the area. Parking that sneaks in without an obvious price will distort peoples choices.
It’s also important to point out that empowering people to make an informed decision about their driving costs is very different from arbitrarily choosing an amount of parking that is going to be supplied. Currently we manage parking just about everywhere, by requiring that it be plentiful, the costs bundled, and the pricing thus depressed and opaque. Switching to artificially restricted parking supply and/or inflated prices would be certainly be different, but is that really what we want to do? When George Karakehian was asked about transitioning the city regulations away from parking minimums and toward parking maximums during the last election, he had this to say:
I’m less interested in creating hardships on those who have to, or want to drive their cars, than I am in demonstrating legitimate choices about transportation options. If cycling, transit, are convenient, affordable, safe, and dependable, citizens will make those choices for the right reason. We can move towards parking reductions over time, incrementally, as those other options are more viable.
Charging drivers the real cost of parking is not “creating hardships”. It is simply showing people more clearly the hardships which are already part of car ownership, and giving them the option of avoiding them.
In the end it might turn out that even at market prices, parking costs alone aren’t enough to move people away from driving in the plan area. Honestly, I have no idea what drivers will choose to do (they often mystify me). Maybe there are so few people who can imagine living with only one or zero cars in their household that this experiment is doomed, but I’ve been living without a car for a very long time, and it can be awfully nice, especially here. It might also be the case that the illusion of free parking in places like the 29th St. Mall or Flatirons Crossing will discourage people from coming to the Transit Village as a destination, and that bundled parking costs in other residential areas may feel cheaper, even if they’re not when more broadly considered. There’s little we can do about this as a city directly, but indirectly if decreasing our reliance on motor vehicles and foreign oil is really something we care about, we can do a lot to make car-free or car-lite life attractive. However, I’m skeptical that a we can make significant progress if we focus only on facilitating biking, walking and transit use, without also making the true costs of driving more apparent. I was kind of shocked to see that that providing eco-passes to the downtown employees apparently has little effect on single occupancy vehicle usage. This isn’t quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since I don’t know what the commute patterns of downtown employees was before the CAGID program, but it appears to have just shuffled the mode split between the “alternative” options… at least based on this data from the TVAP:
|Travel Mode||All Trips by Boulder Residents||Trips to Work by Downtown Employees|
|single occupancy vehicle||38%||36%|
|multiple occupancy vehicle||25%||9%|
|combination of modes||*||6%|
It is already very pleasant to bike, walk, and use the bus in Boulder — more so than anywhere else I’ve lived in the American West — and yet we remain an auto-centric culture.
Connections without Cars
If we’re to be successful in getting all the additional trips within the Transit Village done without automobiles, it must be accessible safely, conveniently, and pleasantly by other means. The map above shows the TVAP districts and the major transportation connections. To the south of 3100 Pearl lies the North Boulder Farmer’s Ditch, which will eventually have a multi-use path paralleling it and leading to an underpass beneath 30th taking bikes and pedestrians into the 29th St. mall. The underpass is actually being built right now, in conjunction with the other work on 30th and the east side of the mall (If you’re a cyclist, and you like Ethiopian food, please go eat at Ras Kassas as often as you can until the underpass is finished. They’re getting hammered by the construction mess. Take your friends, take your bikes.) Later the ditch path will in theory also extend eastward as far as Foothills Parkway. Another path will parallel the railroad tracks north-south connecting the (unfortunately not co-located!) bus and rail terminals. There will also be improved access to the existing Goose Creek path. Junction Place is supposed to be the active spine of the plan area, in much the same way that Pearl is the spine downtown. It would be wonderful if it were a pedestrian and bicycle priority road, where cars are allowed, but never have the right of way. Something like an enormous crosswalk with a 5 mph speed limit. Who knows, in the fullness of time, we might even end up pedestrianizing it, and having it become a long linear urban parkway for use exclusively by humans.
But back in the present reality, I’m disturbed to see no good connections directly between the Transit Village and downtown. If getting between one and the other is a mediocre experience for those not in cars, they will seem like separate cities unless you choose to drive. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but in the lead up to this workshop, I made a point of riding out here to visit the site (on my own, before the site visit that was associated with the workshop) and I realized that although I’d moved back to Boulder at the end of June, I had never once been as far east on Pearl as 28th St. during the summer. I had also not once been on 28th St., or 30th St. anywhere near Pearl. This is because I get around Boulder exclusively by bike. That area almost does not exist in my mind. It’s not because it’s far away, and it’s not because I don’t want to go there. There are a couple of small ethnic groceries on 28th just south of Valmont that I’d shop at. There’s Chey Thuy, Ras Kassas, and Siamese Plate on the Go, all of which I’d enjoy eating at. There’s an industrial kitchen supply store I keep meaning to visit. Of course there’s Whole Foods too. There’s a Mexican grocery out there somewhere too (can you tell I like cooking and eating? That’s probably also related to the biking). But given the choice between heading out there by bike, and going somewhere else instead (Sunflower Market, the Mediterranean grocery on Pearl, the Mountain Sun, Kasa Sushi, K’s China, Illegal Pete’s) I seem to have always chosen to go somewhere else.
Ironically, a bunch of those places are actually easy to reach by bike, off the Goose Creek Path, but I didn’t have experience with the Goose Creek Path from when I lived here before, because I lived in South Boulder. Extra-ironically, it’s not like I haven’t ridden down the Goose Creek Path dozens and dozens of times since June: Community Cycles is out right next to it near Foothills Parkway. I made a special effort to find out where CC was out there, and visit regularly, but from the path, it’s impossible to tell what you’re riding past. It’s like driving to LAX from Pasadena. There’s no shortage of exits past Downtown on the 110, but who the hell knows where they go? The paths sometimes seem like bicycle freeways, separated from the fabric of the city. This also has safety implications — at least subjectively — but not the kind I usually think about when riding. I’ve spoken with a couple of older female cyclists who don’t feel comfortable riding on the paths, especially at night, because they’re afraid of encountering miscreants and hoodlums while isolated from other people.
Riding paths like that is very different from being integrated with the city. In Boulder (and the rest of the US) that almost always means being on the street with cars, with the exception of the Pearl St. pedestrian mall (which I walk my bike through regularly) and much of the Boulder Creek Path in the downtown area, which often travels at street level, and is well integrated with the library, the Farmer’s Market (which often waylaid me unexpectedly over the summer, and left my wallet empty) the municipal building, a Credit Union ATM, Eben G. Fine Park, Central Park, the Map Gallery, the Tea House, and other destinations that I visit regularly.
This experience has convinced me that eventually making a direct bike and pedestrian connection on Pearl between the Transit Village and Downtown will be essential if we want people to visit both of them without driving. Hopefully Goose Creek and the ditch path are enough to get the area off the ground, but 20, 30, 50 years from now, I have to believe that the strip mall DMZ between Folsom and 30th will have been remediated somehow, creating a continuous urban spine for the city that’s inviting to people, and that those paths will have been more tightly integrated with the city that surrounds them.
Building(s) for People
Designing buildings and cities for people has become something of a lost art in the US. Most everything we build contains within it an assumption and acceptance of automobiles on a grand scale (I mean… transit centers surrounded by tens of millions of dollars worth of parking?). We’ve forgotten what makes cities work well when human powered. Sometimes, cars and people are in competition for space, especially on the street, but even within this car dominated world, we can often make things work for pedestrians and cyclists, if only we try and remember how. Unfortunately, based the Junction Place Village floorplans we’re suffering from a bit of urban amnesia.
The city required at least one secure, covered bike parking space per residential unit. In the current design, this parking is all down in the underground parking garage. It’s definitely covered, and probably about as secure as you can get while being left completely unattended without actually being locked in a big box. However, implicit in this decision is the assumption that people will treat their bike like a car. Cyclists parking here will enter and leave the development via the parking garage, which opens onto Junction Place, and ride an elevator directly to and from the floor they live on. Some people will also probably treat their bikes like pets… and bring them all the way up into their residences, to sleep in the kitchen or entryway. I don’t know anyone who actually likes doing this, since it’s a hassle and can be a mess, depending on the weather. People often do it for security reasons. Here I’d consider doing it to avoid passing through the parking garage, allowing me to go directly from my home to the street. However, it turns out that none of the common exits from the building open directly onto the street. They all open onto the interior courtyards, which for the western building are half a story above street level, and separated from the sidewalk by stairs (This half-grade separation is a cost-saving measure, allowing two full floors of parking beneath the buildings, with only 1.5 floors of excavation.). There will be some surface level bike racks, near the corner of Junction Place and Pearl, to support the seven commercial units. If I lived here, I’d probably choose to lock my cheap around-town bike out there overnight regularly, or to a railing, tree, bench, or other piece of the streetscape right in front of my building.
In my fantasy world, there would be covered racks along the front of the building, between the stoops, right on the sidewalk, or possibly on bulb-outs taking up on-street car parking spaces (there are lots of different options that could work). The most prominent and inviting entrance to the buildings — the entrances that any non-driver would use by default — would open directly onto the sidewalk with no stairs, no re-direction to the garage or the interior courtyards. The covered racks would be visible from the adjacent apartments, and that visibility would provide some security. Having a consistently populated sidewalk would also help. In my experience, barring an angry mob it’s only lonely spaces that are frightening. Most people are decent, and so long as there are a lot of them, the law of large numbers says the dangerous ones will be in the minority.
The TVAP claims to want to support active human-friendly streets. Sidewalk café culture. The street as truly public space. Transit and pedestrian friendly mixed residential/commercial/industrial developments are meant to facilitate incidental face to face interactions. The city actually requested a change in the building design, facing entrances onto the street as per TVAP guidelines, to “activate” the street. However, the only entrances which were re-oriented were the ones of individual ground floor residential units, which make up only a very small proportion of the complex overall. Street parking for bikes and prominent street-facing entrances serving the entire development would funnel everyone leaving or arriving by foot, bike, or transit through the same social space, hopefully providing a constant supply of fresh living people directly to the sidewalk. Plentiful commercial space on the ground floor would also keep people moving through the area on the sidewalks.
Here we run into a phasing problem. For a few years at least, this complex is going to be unusual and somewhat isolated. Even if all the residents were coming and going by foot (through the front doors that don’t exist) they alone would probably not make up a large enough customer pool to support an entire ground floor of commercial space, as with the apparently high vacancy rate for the commercial space at The Peloton near 37th and Arapahoe. Additionally, the 29th St. mall and the other businesses across Pearl Parkway over by Whole Foods are fairly accessible from the 3100 Pearl site, and so there’s not a pressing need for additional commercial space, and there likely won’t be, until the Transit Village is more completely populated. So the idea is to put in “mixed use” developments early on that are slanted more toward residential units, and later on even the balance out. I wish we could find some way to have flexible use space at street level in these early buildings though, so later it can be re-purposed. Or at the very least, to design the buildings as if we expect them to one day be in a relatively dense, thriving downtown environment, truly oriented toward the street, and permeable to pedestrians and other non-motorized users, without stairs up to and down from the inter-building spaces, and with good lines of sight down the roads and through many of the urban spaces.
It’s annoying that the “grid” of streets that is envisioned is so convoluted out here, unlike the downtown grid. When did Cartesian coordinates go out of style, and why? There are more connections through the space for bikes and pedestrians than for cars, which will be nice, but it doesn’t look like it will be completely straightforward to navigate, in the same way that a nice grid is. You’ll have to learn the space and the ways, and I think that can act to keep people from seeing as much of the area as they might otherwise. When route finding is unintuitive, we tend to find a way that works, and stick with it, even if it’s not optimal, and at the expense of incidentally finding out what else exists nearby. I was sitting around with a couple of other car free friends last night, with decades of cumulative experience biking around Boulder between the three of us, and I was shocked to discover that we couldn’t agree on the fastest way to bike between downtown and a particular spot in South Boulder. One of us heads up the 17th St. hill to the Broadway path, and takes it all the way. One of us heads up Folsom through CU to the Broadway path, and the third heads out to 28th St., past Williams Village, down the Bear Creek path to Dartmouth, and then over. It’s wonderful to have options as a cyclist, but the stickiness of the obvious routes, despite their being longer or less pleasant, means the network is opaque. Even small gaps or lapses in signage are frustrating, and result in people remaining partially ignorant of the options available, in a way that drivers are unlikely to experience. Yes, we’ve got the interwebz and little computers in our pockets, but until we’ve all got a heads up display wired into our optic nerves, nothing beats making things easy and obvious in the Real World.
Can Arterial Streets Really be Livable?
Ultimately, the whole purpose of this exercise — the reason for the city workshop and for my reading up on all this stuff — was to make comments on several different possible street cross sections for Pearl Parkway in front of 3100 Pearl. Here’s what they looked like, in general:
This is the original cross section suggested in the TVAP, with two lanes of traffic in each direction, plus a left turn pocket at intersections, no on-street parking, and the existing multi-use path/sidewalk retained on the south side of the street. The only major difference between this and the street as it is today is the addition of the planted median and the “tree lawns” on either side. This design was pretty much rejected out of hand, because it has no on-street parking, and for the commercial spaces in the development to have much chance of surviving, the feeling is that on-street parking is essential. The city is also of the opinion that curb parking is a good way to “activate” the street.
The “Boulevard” concept now being put forward by Sam Assefa and the Planning Dept. looks like this:
The four through travel lanes are narrower, and instead of having parking adjacent to them, there are frontage roads or “woonerfs” on either side which accommodate local traffic, bikes, pedestrians, a parking lane, and additional plantings and facilities like bike parking and street furniture. Many cyclists at the meeting were concerned that this design would remove the 2-way multi-use path that they currently have on the south side of the street, and replace it with an unpredictable and possibly congested shared space in which anyone heading west on the path from Foothills Parkway would be forced either to cross the street, or to ride the wrong way for a couple of blocks. This would be especially likely behavior for residents of the development.
A third option looked very much like the TVAP cross-section for 30th St. adjacent to high-density residential and mixed use zoning:
This design would take the current road and add bike lanes in each direction, in effect extending the lanes which currently exist on Pearl St. to the west of 30th as far as the railroad tracks. On-street parking would also be added.
The impetus for the Boulevard concept seems to be the city’s desire to experiment with “placemaking”, creating a livable streetscape between the building front and the first planted median, in which people want to spend time because it’s nice to be there. I am emphatically in favor of creating that kind of space, but I’m sad to say that I don’t think this is the right place or time to run the experiment, for several reasons. First, Pearl is a fast, loud, busy street here. Second, I’m skeptical that the cars in the shared space will behave like guests. Third, the small proportion of commercial space, the lack of common entryways opening directly onto Pearl, along with the implicit assumption that people will enter and leave the building via the parking garage if they’re biking, and the role that this building is playing as “pioneer” in the area suggest to me that there will not be enough warm bodies on the sidewalk here to make it lively for some time to come.
Pearl Parkway is one of three automotive thoroughfares in the area going east-west. The next roads to cross Footills are Valmont to the north and Arapahoe to the south. They’re separated by a mile. Pearl Parkway currently carries about 30,000 cars a day, and pretty much nobody felt comfortable trying to cut that number down by reducing the number of travel lanes. In the foreseeable future, Pearl is going to be a big busy street here. Drivers and traffic engineers will want to make sure the cars go fast — especially if they’re physically separated from bikes, pedestrians, and people trying to park. Four lanes of fast traffic a few meters away is not in my mind conducive to having a livable street. During the site visit, the road noise was enough to make hearing the people speaking challenging, at approximately the distance from the roadway that the human space would lie. The most common roadway analogy people made within Boulder was S. Broadway, between Dartmouth and Table Mesa.
To be comfortable with the Boulevard design at all, I’d really need to see what design elements would be put in place to actively enforce the role of “guests” upon the cars in the shared space. How narrow will the lane be? Will there be chicanes? Speed humps? How would it be signalized or integrated with Pearl Parkway for cars? The exact design isn’t set yet.
Even if the main road were quieter, and the side-roads were aggressively calmed, it wouldn’t make any difference without a supply of people to keep the space alive. I realize we’re planning for decades down the line here, but I’m afraid that if we have early experiences with “placemaking” that go poorly, it will end up being de-emphasized later on, and I think that would be a shame. I’d hate to see this whole area end up like Belmar in Lakewood, kind of pseudo-urban, and still very car-oriented. Kind of a live-in mall. If there’s a street here that should be made into livable shared space, it really seems like it ought to be Junction Place itself. Unlike the S. side of Pearl Parkway, in the shadow of a 4 story building, it will get a lot of sun. It will be separated from the main arterial, and will be narrower and quieter, and it’s already slated to be a bike/ped/transit priority road. For the time being, the bit south of Pearl will be a cul-de-sac, meaning that a very large proportion of the drivers entering it will be residents of the development, and probably also users of the space as pedestrians. Cyclists parking their bikes in the garage would pass through the space too, as would pedestrians exiting through the courtyards. Both sides of the street would get the livable treatment at once. It might be possible to treat the area as a kind of plaza, integrating the two halves of the development, and serving as a good precedent for the human-scale look-and-feel of the rest of Junction Place. Shoehorning Pearl Parkway into a similar role just seems like too much to ask if we also want to retain it as a main automotive thoroughfare, providing access to downtown from the east.
Given all that, I think the third option above probably makes the most sense for Pearl, providing continuity with the on-street bike infrastructure to the west of 30th and adding the on-street parking the retail needs, while maintaining the current travel lanes for cars. That parking may also act to calm traffic in the area which wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion as a cyclist, pedestrian, and possible resident in a unit facing Pearl. Slower speeds wouldn’t need to significantly reduce the overall vehicle throughput on Pearl, since it’s largely controlled by signals further west. It’s not the friendliest infrastructure to more timid cyclists, but neither is anything else between 30th and Downtown on Pearl. Many of them will choose to make that connection on Goose Creek and the new path to be built along the N. Boulder Farmer’s Ditch passing under 30th. This design is also easier to signalize, cheaper to build, and easier to keep free of snow than the Boulevard proposal.
If we’re lucky, maybe a few decades hence we’ll have tied this area into Downtown more effectively, and we’ll be able to think of this as the beginning of the core of town, where cars should no longer expect to hold sway. Maybe then we’ll be willing to trade a couple of lanes of traffic for a safer, cleaner, quieter street, and more space for people to live in. Maybe we won’t be quite so fat. Maybe we’ll still have some pine trees up in RMNP. Maybe our liquid hydrocarbons will be produced domestically and cost $3/liter. Maybe we’ll have less than 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and summer sea ice in the arctic too.
I mean, a guy can dream. Can’t he?