Friday, October 1, 2010

The Potential Impact of Infill – Not In My Backyard

Short missive today.

I attended a neighborhood meeting last night sponsored by the county traffic agency, even one of our elected county supervisors showed up. Their intent was to find out our neighborhood’s needs and desires to improve safety and circulation. I think they hoped if they had a couple of dozen neighbors show up it would be great meeting, instead probably more than 200 attended to voice their concerns — it both impressed and shook the county staffers.

Background: Our little piece of the American dream is 20 years old, we designed it and it was constructed by one of the best builders in this part of the state, a half-acre of heaven sitting with hundreds of others in a donut hole of county jurisdiction, surrounded by Walnut Creek, California. Every vote to annex into the city has been turned down. Why is another matter for another time.

For this privilege we sit along narrow county roads that both bypass and lead to the town center. We revel in our country roads, no curbs, large lots and idyllic life. That is until the freeway backs up and then we become a conduit of excessive traffic trying to find a short-cut to wherever. This is simply a result of development and growth, not in our neighborhood, but elsewhere.

We are not unique or special. This is happening everywhere. Our heavenly donut hole is found in every expanding community across the country. We are the drive-through (instead of fly-over) bits of the American dream. And I honestly don’t know what the answer is. To improve the streets and add the shoulders for bikes and pedestrians (no one wants sidewalks) will take portions of some lots and increase speeds – and while improving traffic flows, most of residents reject this because of very real safety concerns.

I bring this up because this is what is confronting city planners, developers, and designers of infill neighborhoods. Existing streets and utility systems were designed for one development density and pattern then changed to denser neighborhoods that may be three or four times the number of units of the older community. In some cases, such as mega-apartment complexes, it may be 50 times the number of units. These existing systems have great difficulty in dealing with these “improvements.” The builder may replace nearby stoplights and add a few signals - even widen the streets. But often it is these other neighborhoods, sometimes miles away, that are also affected by the accumulating growth. Impact fees can be collected – but money does not necessarily solve the problem or the physical impact.

This is not just a traffic issue; it is also a very expensive utility problem as well. Three old houses are taken and replaced by 50 apartments. You can imagine the impact on water mains and sewers, streets are opened and lines replaced, sometimes in the case of huge developments, for miles.

I realize that this is a bit of a rant (I sound like some of the residents last night who just didn’t understand the why of it), about growth and density. I have had a great career doing exactly this elsewhere, it now coming home to roost. I realize all too well that there is no simple answer.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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