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Highlights of CNU 21, Part 2 | Congress for the New Urbanism

Highlights of CNU 21, Part 2

MLewyn's picture

I saw a few more panels on Friday, and spent much of the weekend visiting Salt Lake City's various neighborhoods.

Sarah Susanka's plenary address contained one line that spoke to me.  She spoke about an "appreciation for space", comparable to an appreciation for music.  I think one reason I don't fit in with my relatives and friends who have gotten used to sprawl is that I have a highly developed, perhaps overdeveloped, sense of space.  My relatives in Atlanta have gotten used to things (such as streets without sidewalks) that horrify me.

A panel on financing explained the problem of FHA financing. The FHA will insure purely residential mortgages, but will not support mixed-use developments, because it views its mission as primarily support of housing.  Until recently, the FHA would only allow 20% retail space in a project; thus, a building with retail on the ground floor had to be at least five stories.  It has increased the permissible amount of retail to 35%, so a three-story building with retail on the bottom is fine with them.  However, they still will not support a mainstay of new urbanist development- the two-story building with retail on the bottom (which is thus 50% retail, above their 35% quota).

A panel on local government showed how some local goverments were trying to promote smart growth.  Matthew McElroy spoke about El Paso's steps- a form-based code for city-owned land, and tax incentives for more walkable development.

Annick Beaudet spoke about Austin's "complete streets" program.  The program focused on adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes - fairly modest steps, but a good start towards retrofitting sprawl.  According to Beaudet, as the number of bike lanes rose, the number of bicycle crashes went down.

On Sunday, I visited some of Salt Lake City's suburbs and some of its more walkable areas.  I saw some good things and bad things.  On the negative side, streets were often too wide to be interesting or comfortable for pedestrians, especially downtown where more people normally walk.   (However, in some non-downtown neighborhoods, this was less true).  The light rail system closes at 7 PM on Sundays - a serious hardship for travelers taking late flights.  The bus system closes around 10 pm, and around 7 pm on weekends.  On the other hand, there are some nice walkable neighborhoods; as in the south, these areas tend to be dominated by single-family homes, the occasional duplex, and the occasional small apartment complex.  There are almost no rowhouses or similar attached dwellings.  

On the positive side, I was amazed that a city as small as Salt Lake City would have three light rail lines and a commuter rail line, even if their hours don't always make sense.  I didn't see a single street without a sidewalk, even in sprawling Sandy.  There is lots of undeveloped land near suburban light rail stops; this means that the system doesn't go where people now live (bad) but it also means that the system has ample room for growth (good) as areas near rail stops get filled in with housing.  

My Salt Lake City photos are here.

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