Sunday, May 29, 2011

Noodling About the Northwest

Nood-ling (nōōd’lĭng) n. 1. Fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily by crazy people who cannot afford proper fishing gear. 2. The intentional annoyance by bloggers who are skeptical of the news as it’s reported, as in “Noodling bureaucrats is more fun than fishing bare hand for catfish and a lot more surprising.” This is now an end of the month feature.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks traveling through the American and Canadian Northwest, with stops in Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver. This was as much a revisit (we were in Vancouver last August) as well as an opportunity to delve deeper into what makes these exciting cities great places to live in.

Random thoughts:
Seattle is working hard to try and make something of their waterfront, on May 19th a presentation was made to the city about the future of its waterfront (see powerpoint). These ventures take a long time and a lot of money to complete. After living through the 1989 earthquake and watching the ongoing redevelopment of the post-earthquake San Francisco Waterfront, I appreciate what they are faced with. The landscape architect is James Corner, designer of the New York High Line project in Manhattan, exciting stuff.

Seattle Freeway Park
Now in its 35th year, the park (which was built to help cover a freeway expansion), looks well and is an important connector through the core of the city’s urban center. It's well maintained and shows that the city has retaken an important piece of its downtown. The landscape architects were the late Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva; it was opened in 1976.
Seattle's Freeway Park and yes the freeway is under all this!
The Public Market (Pike Place Market)
As always, messy, chaotic, packed with tourists and residents, great piles of fish on ice and a flower market that is available to all, this cultural icon is one great reason to go to Seattle. The restaurants, while well worn, still serve good food. You always wonder when funky and interesting turns to old and tired. I think this is on the edge.
Flowers and Fish - imagine the fragrance!
Space Needle and Seattle Center
While the obvious financial driver of this important urban park is the Space Needle (just based on the numerous do-dads and nick-knacks in its gift store and the price!!), it’s just as obvious that this park needs a major overhaul and redevelopment. Seattle Center is now old and very tired. It's in need of a major refinishing. The various components, museums, theaters and institutions all need more than a paint job, the landscape needs a bulldozer and arborist. But the bones are there and the mono-rail is still an important link to downtown (and tell me why it’s not in every major city?).
The Monorail - Its footprint would fit any city!
With the community’s interest in the gazillion dollar waterfront project and with funds as tight as they are, I can only hope that they don’t lose sight of their other community resources.

But Seattle is incredibly clean and well kept, there is a sense of creativity about the town and new retail concepts are popping up and, mid-week, restaurants are full - which is always a good sign.

I will take a look at Victoria and Vancouver next week.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, May 20, 2011

I am away this week and next, so I'll reprint the second  blog from last year, it concerns the state of the design industry. I would like to report that things are getting better, but they are not. Fees are still being driven down, there are far fewer firms than eleven months ago, and the future is, at the moment, not brighter.

So here you go:

June 23, 2010
I remember talking to a client over a year ago about the condition of many of the consulting firms that he uses in his master plan communities, "Jim, we won't be here when you want us," I said. "Every architecture, engineering, and planning firm is half the size they were in 2007." He smiled and said he wasn't worried. I wonder how he is feeling now.

Firms are now from O% (zero) to 20% of the size they were in 2007. Yes, many of the older firms do not exist now (the principals have had enough and retired - they ain't gonna do this again) - no associates left to take over, they were let go during the collapse. To the point, now, that one of the trade and management groups that work with the design and engineering field (PMSJ - Resources,Inc. see, states that the middle size firm (15 to 30 professionals) may not even exist by 2020.

Frank Stasiowski's new book Impact 2020; 10 Giant Forces Now Colliding to Shake How We practice Design in 2020, the mid-sized firm can not afford the technology, the insurance, health care costs, local employee's minimum requirements (see San Francisco), and the continuing problems that HR demands - all overhead. Sure rent may be cheaper - but not if you still have 2 years on that lease you made in 2007.

What does this mean to the development industry two years from now? It will get less service on a one-on-one basis, the experience level of the professional consultant will be gone, and the cost will be higher. All at a time when the ability to react to radically changing markets is critical.

We all won't be gone, but the few that remain may not hold the strengths that they had at one time. Partnerships are dissolving and the partner's call to fund the company have probably drained their personal coffers to the point that they have to break up the company or risk bankruptcy. None of this bodes well for the future. I wish I could hold hope for a better outcome but as the "Great Recession," proceeds and every aspect of the development industry, commercial, retail, housing and office languishes; the ongoing survival of most firms not doing gov'ment work or TI improvements for census takers is sadly in doubt.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Re-Urban Balance – The Quest for the Future Downtown

I live in a delightful small town twenty-six miles east of San Francisco. The village was once a Spanish ranchero, that beget cattle ranches, that beget walnut and fruit orchards– hence the name Walnut Creek – that beget housing, that beget freeways, that beget BART (regional transit), that beget a regional crossroads, that now has beget one of California’s most successful urban retail and commercial developments. Sounds almost biblical.

I remember during an Urban Land Institute presentation a number of years ago, a past mayor of our village remarking, as a part of a panel I was moderating, about a regional mayor’s conference she attended. “Well, the mayor of Alameda walked up to me all puffed up and said they had just acquired a Trader Joe’s, well I said congratulations, we haven’t achieved anything so large in our down town, we just got Tiffany’s.” Yes, size sometimes does make a difference. Trader Joe’s is a go to and leave store, Tiffany’s is contagious like a plague (the good kind), it will infect every store and building owner. It will bring more buyers to the downtown, all profit.

The difficulty with much new urban (faux-retail) development is its lack of history, variety, and texture. I am always looking for friction in my designs, things rubbing against each other, close by shops, near and available parking – (but not too much - it can push apart uses and lose friction), a broad mix of retailers and restaurants. It’s extremely difficult to achieve this in a new retail center, and almost impossible in the old enclosed mall. We are lucky here in Walnut Creek.

While this is, and all downtowns are, in a constant state of renewal through creative destruction (stores fail, owners lower and raise rents, cities try to nudge land uses around such as restaurants and retail, and developers try to find the best mix for their centers), Walnut Creek is lucky to have a broader rental base and a diverse number of building owners. Ain’t completion great!

The old part of town was a classic California “valley” town. Main Street flanked by mostly one story buildings (most insubstantial), somewhat narrow sidewalks, adequate parking (for 1930), and a low surrounding population. But now the town sits at the intersection of two major freeways and a regional transit center with BART. The streets have trees that stand fifty to sixty feet high and as each old building is renovated, new walks and street improvements are made. The city has built discrete parking garages with retail and restaurants on the street, and, most importantly, supported the expansions of the Macerich urban mall on the south side of the downtown core. There is a symbiotic relationship between the north and south sides of the downtown core, the old and the new, the large floor plates to the south and the privately owned shops and stores to the north. Restaurants are tucked between things, there is the beginning of a good sidewalk restaurant trade, and there is enough of a downtown to make a day of it – not just drive to, shop and leave.

New retail centers try to build in history and texture, it’s almost impossible to achieve. A new car takes fifty years to be a classic, and not all classics are high-end, the ’57 Chevy Belair was the vanilla of its time, it now turns heads. It’s tough to achieve maturity and success. But with an older and very competitive area of the downtown mixed with the draw and high end values of the Macerich portion, the downtown is richer and more exciting. There is now a night life (go find that in your downtown), there is Nordstrom, a new Forever 21, a Neiman Marcus will open soon, an Apple store with its usual customer line outside each morning, and some really, really great food.

I’m reminded of the old Yogi Berra comment, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded!” That can be said for our downtown, everyone complains about the traffic and lack of parking, as if that’s a bad thing. Would you want to own a business with no traffic problems and plenty of available parking right outside your front door? I was discussing downtowns with a city planning director of a community near San Jose, he was charged with creating a downtown out a disparate jumble of strip malls, regional centers, and six and eight lane main streets. He had no traffic or parking problems anywhere. “I would kill for a traffic level of F,” he said. “But if I said it, I’d be fired.”

There’s the rub, or lack of it.

Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 8, 2011

900 Hundred People in My Backyard?

Now for something completely different. 

For the last three months we have (that is I and the Director of Maintenance (DOM)) have been busting our butts to get our garden, Windsor Hill, up to the task of entertaining and pleasing 900 guests for a garden tour by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).  This event was the past two days, so sorry for the delay of the usual Friday posting. I, in my role of Director of Construction (DOC),  and the DOM successfully pulled it off. I reveled in the fact that there was a ratio of 10:1 women to men, and the DOM showed off her most spectacular collection of over 250 roses.

We have been part of many garden tours over the years and will continue to do so in the future, it gives us positive feedback for the hard work of building a garden from scratch. This garden was scraped ground twenty years ago, I designed the house and the garden's shapes, the DOM makes it look the way it is. BTW, I stay away from the roses, they  don't like me and I don't like them. They are too sharp and prickly even though beautiful, reminds of some women I know, but not the DOM.

A garden is always in flux, changing, and challenging. Gardening forces even the most ardent environmentalist to realize that trees must be cut down, hard choices must be made, plants need water, and at times, things must be yanked out for the betterment of the whole. Pruning and shearing are as important as planting and mulching.

The garden is a four season party, something exciting is always happening, even in the dead of winter there are flowers. Color is important, flowers are important, sculpture and follies tease, and foliage contrasts are a must. And, I must say with no humility, Windsor Hill displayed herself extremely well for the visitors. The women were thrilled, the men who tagged along were very upset, these tours always produced lists that needed to be completed in their own gardens. But is was spectacular.

Below are some pictures of what Windsor Hill looked like on Friday, enjoy and happy Mother's Day.

Entry Gate
The Piazza

Steps to Perennial Terrace

Upper Perennial Terrace

Perennial Terrace

The Frog's Overlook

Roses and More Roses

The Monstrosity
The Koi Pond

The Fountain - Built for HGTV
See Info Click Here 

Have a wonderful Mother's Day and 

Stay Tuned . . . .