Tag Archives: U Street

Questioning density

Did they get it right?

This blog tends to applaud urban density, deeming it essential to healthy, sustainable neighborhoods. Density is often defined by the amount of people occupying a square mile (or acre, or hectare). But what is the ideal level of density? How can that be objective rather than subjective? Is there a tipping point where you can have too much density? (Above is infill mixed-use construction at the corner of U Street and 13th Street in Washington, DC, a city with roughly 9500 people per square mile. Compare that to the City of Birmingham’s roughly 1500 people per square mile.)

We intuitively know that below certain levels of density, it’s hard to have adequate transit systems, walk-able streets, successful commercial areas, adequate greenways and natural areas, wise conservation of resources, etc. A fascinating article written by Lloyd Alter over on treehugger attempts to objectively analyze urban density, and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

So is NYC the best we have?

One of the article’s illustrations is the above map (courtesy UNEP) that shows urban density along the horizonal axis, and transport costs along the vertical. Note that transport costs include private and public transportation. At first glance this graph shows that New York City has the highest US density of major cities, and the lowest transport costs–validating the theory that the denser you get, the cheaper the transportation costs. But looking closer, you notice that Los Angeles, while having higher transport costs (all that freeway driving and limited public transit) has a HIGHER density as a city than New York (which includes very-dense Manhattan but also less dense boroughs). Also, much less dense Australian cities like Perth or Sydney have considerably lower transport costs than New York. So, at least in the middle of the graph, density and transport costs don’t necessarily correlate. And neither do our assumptions about the sprawl of LA vs. the tidy density of NYC.

Maybe this is it

Alter decides after examining the evidence that Greenwich Village (above) or central Paris–with their low-to-medium height buildings and small blocks–represent the ideal densities which support good transit, street life, and a sense of community without tipping over into the need for hugely expensive (and energy-intensive) mega-towers, vast parking garages, etc. Paris was largely rebuilt in its current form by imperial fiat; Greenwich Village is a 19th-century layering of former tenements and townhouses. Neither is necessarily possible to “replicate” today. But the issues surrounding urban density in these models and elsewhere are worth pondering as we decide how the Birmingham of the future will look.

[thanks to ncindc for the U Street pic; UNEP for the graph;  frankeggen for the Greenwich Village pic]

Death of a Gypsy…

…and we don’t mean Carmen.

So, my local convenience store just closed a couple days ago–I ran across the street last night to get a couple tomatoes and found the “closed” sign on the door, and the interior was clearly in the process of being emptied.

Here’s a pic of the facade of the  Gypsy Market. Closed.

Now this brings up an interesting discussion–there was another “Neighborhood Market” around the corner that closed maybe 2 years ago. While the Gypsy seemed more in tune with the eclectic vibe of our urban ‘hood, neither its owner nor the owner of the Neighborhood Market struck me as being great business people, with solid plans for stability and growth. We need convenience stores downtown; we need local grocers; and we need supermarkets.

In Birmingham, for years we have heard the same argument. It goes like this: “Supermarket chains typically need approximately [insert high number here] people living within a 3-mile radius, and downtown is not ready yet. Not enough people.” More recently, there has been serious consideration of smaller, “urban footprint” type supermarkets that would be positioned geographically to serve both the north and south sides of central downtown–i.e. capturing the large UAB market to the southside.

What we’ve been missing is coordinated, professional efforts combined with incentives that other cities have used to induce supermarkets to come into areas traditionally avoided by chains that are oriented to the suburbs. Check out Greenlife Grocery in downtown Chattanooga which is like a mini-Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  And, unlike Birmingham, Chattanooga boasts a truly comprehensive, coordinated effort to induce a more mainstream supermarket into downtown: you can check out this executive summary from 2007 for a taste.

Cities cannot just wait for markets to come–they’ve got to get organized, aggressive, and in many cases offer incentives. Washington, DC has a specific incentive for inducing supermarkets to enter the city, which has had great success. I remember when the U Street neighborhood there was a relatively shabby area with no good supermarket. About 10 years ago the city passed their incentive law, and a developer put together a mixed-use project with Whole Foods as an anchor. The rest is history–the grocer helped spur retail and condo development across the neighborhood (although gentrification had started a few years earlier, Whole Foods accelerated it). Thanks to Maryland Route 5 for the pic:

Markets can be fantastic growth generators for neighborhoods. I think downtown can support both a full service supermarket, as well as at least a couple small convenience/local groceries, if they were done intelligently and backed by the right research and business plans. And, of course it would be nice if they could match the quirky vibe of downtown, as the Gypsy did manage to do.

And by the way, gentrification is a complex topic that will weave it’s way in and out of this blog. Suffice it to say that right now, downtown Birmingham has NO local grocers whatsoever, so we’re not talking about displacing local flavor with boring corporate chains. We’re talking about an essential service that’s needed. Now.