Thursday, January 21, 2010

The WDDC's Goody Clancy presentation: Some comments

This presetation took place back on the 13th. I wasn't in attendance, but today through the wonders of e-mail I received links to both what was shown to those who were there and a survey of audience responses to what was said.

Here is a link to the presentation made to the audience. It's full of familiar topics--and full of familiar ways of talking about making downtown "livable": the demographics of the city according to ages, sizes of households and incomes; what sort of housing people would like and can afford; what downtown would need to offer in the way of housing, shopping, dining and entertainment (note those latter three items--I'll come back to them later) to attract people to downtown; and, as I mentioned a while back, the theme of making downtown more walkable and bike-able. These are, of course, very good things to see being said, for all the reasons that all of you reading this blog probably know by heart.

Here, meanwhile, is a survey or audience responses to the presentation. I'd like to highlight some of the findings that I think are in some way attention-getting.

In response to the question "What is the most significant challenge for downtown housing, the largest number of people (42% of 131 surveys completed) said, "Building new housing at a price the market can afford." This is good to see. My sense of other cities' attempts to make their downtowns more livable is that housing costs and rents there effectively price people out of the market who would would otherwise be good fits for the urban core. The rent ranges that the research suggests the market will support seemed surprisingly reasonable, in fact. Now: whether builders and other investors will actually want to sell or rent at affordable rates is another matter.

For the question "What is the most significant opportunity for downtown retail?" the largest number of respondents (31%) said, "Satisfy unmet demand in the Wichita region for retail options in walkable settings." Again, good to see, and matches the results of the responses to the question, "What is the most significant opportunity for a more walkable downtown?": The two highest responses were, "Satisfy unmet demand in the Wichita region for living, working and/or shopping options in walkable settings" (36%) and "Make downtown streets more interesting and vibrant" [whatever that means] (35%). And finally, when respondents were asked to select from a list of items the three streetscape improvements that would most effectively improve walkability and transportation options in downtown, "Street amenities" received the highest number of responses (89), but in second and third place were "On-street bicycle lanes/cycle tracks" (55) and "Pedestrian wayfinding" (48).

The respondents, whoever they were, have the right ideas, it seems. I do wonder, though, whether anyone said anything about the need for a few small but full-service grovery stores for the 3,000 or so people the consultants say they think would like to live downtown. Perhaps they would be included in the category "retail"? (I won't go into the vagueness of a lot of the language in the presentation and survey questions.) I'm asking this because, as long-time readers of this blog know, I think that such places contribute significantly to a neighborhood's livability by not just selling food for residents but also providing them with places to meet and come to know each other as they visit there a couple or three times a week (the stores are close enough to walk, so there'd be no need either to drive or make one big trip per week). They contribute to building a sense of place, in other words. To encourage people to live downtown but not provide places to shop for food just turns downtown into another suburb, in terms of traffic patterns: traffic doesn't get reduced; those nice wide sidewalks don't get used as much as they could or should. Shopping, dining and entertainment are all well and good; but if people are genuinely living downtown, as opposed to, basically, just sleeping there, they'll need stuff other than places to amuse themselves. Stuff like, you know, food.

Central Wichita is already underserved by full-service grocery stores; to add yet more people here yet otherwise not plan for something so basic as places to buy food would be a mistake, I think. I'll spare you more ranting about this tonight and instead remind myself (and you) that perhaps the best place to rant further would be at next month's charrette at the Wichita Art Museum, as I noted here.

In addition to the survey, there's an attached article about the presentation that appeared in the Eagle. Curiously, it dwells at considerable length on something that the survey doesn't mention: the glaring need for hotel space downtown. While over 70% of business travelers to Wichita conduct business downtown, that area has only 12% of the town's hotel rooms. Another need, one the survey and the article both address, is the need for more office space downtown that's suitable for the technology that businesses require these days. The upshot of all that is that several large buildings, some of them multi-use, will be recommended in the urban core. Assuming the same people who work in those buildings will also be living in them or within a few blocks of them, then daytime automobile traffic should be much less than it would otherwise be.

As I think about WDDC, I keep going back to something we were told in the WAMPO meeting on Tuesday: That whether all or none of the projects under consideration were built, congestion and drive times would remain the same under any course of action. While I understand that it's a transportation board's job to build transportation stuff, it seems to me that it'd be a wiser course of action for municipalities to reduce the need for future road capacity by adopting policies that positively encourage people not to drive so much. Zoning that encourages high-density, mixed-use development in already-built areas--such as what will be happening downtown--is one of those ways. So is the development and expansion of public transit and alternate transportation. The idea is to provide infrastructure and options to get people to consider changing their behavior, rather than enabling the behavior and at the same time kind of hoping they'll see the light and not engage in the behavior being enabled. WDDC, it seems, is, or wants, to be headed in a positive direction. If they're not, they certainly talk a good game.

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