Tag: 2022-05-nn-feature

Meet a local planner: Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP

Meet a local planner: Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP

With 52 years of professional planning experience in multiple states, Naphtali Knox, FAICP, donates significant time to the planning community as editor-in-chief of Northern News since 2005. He was principal and owner of Naphtali H. Knox and Associates for 27 years, retiring in 2009. Prior to that, he was Director of Planning and Community Environment for the City of Palo Alto for nine years. For six years before Palo Alto, he was Director of Physical Planning and Construction at The University of Chicago. Knox’s other prominent roles include University Community Planner for the University of California statewide, Chief of Comprehensive Planning for the City of Des Moines, and construction engineer at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He has received multiple awards and national recognition for his work and leadership and has served as president of the California Planning Roundtable. He holds a B.Arch from the University of Minnesota and an MCP from the University of Pennsylvania.

Your career experiences are tremendously diverse: the military, cities, universities, consulting, and business owner. What has drawn your attention?

While I always strive to be professional and objective, I am biased toward affordable housing. I recall being interviewed by the Palo Alto Planning Commission before being hired in 1972. One commissioner asked me what I would do for people who can’t afford housing. Even back then, affordable housing was an issue. I created for Palo Alto the first inclusionary housing program in the West, which produced two duplex, for-sale units in a small subdivision. Those were the first four inclusionary units built and occupied in the US (1973).

Your undergraduate degree is in architecture. How did you become interested in planning?

I was a straight-A student but struggled in my architectural studio (design classes). So my professor advised me to eschew a graduate degree in architecture and instead look to that new field, city planning, for my master’s. I was accepted at MIT, Harvard, and Penn, but I was without funds. But Penn offered a full scholarship and an assistantship.

I had been in ROTC at Minnesota and needed permission from the Air Force to go for a master’s. The Air Force OKed the Master’s but ordered me to complete the four-semester program in three semesters. That was hard, really hard. But I owe my career to Penn and my life to the Air Force, as it was in Colorado where I met the woman who would be my wife for going-on 64 years.

What work did you do in your time with the Air Force?

In Colorado Springs, I was responsible at first for reviewing landscape and building plans for the new academy. But in 1958, I became a kind of clerk-of-the-works, representing the Air Force in change-order negotiations among the contractors and the architect, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

It was a fantastic experience with a large-scale project. When I arrived at the academy on a freezing February day, giant earthmovers were flattening hilltops and filling in canyons. When I left two years later, building interiors were being finished and serving counters were being moved into the massive dining hall. Congress had allocated $100 million for the campus ($1 billion in today’s money) and set in the legislation that the project must be finished on time — the first class would enter the new campus in 1959 — and within budget. Change orders normally require more time and more money, but the Air Force could offer neither. I learned a lot about finding architectural and construction solutions that wouldn’t require either more time or more money.

I also met and worked with the lead architect of the Air Force Academy, Walter Netsch of SOM. When I later worked for The University of Chicago, starting in 1966, Netsch had just finished designing its magnificent Regenstein Library and became a go-to architect for other university buildings. You never know whom you will meet and later connect with in your life’s journey.

Image of professor sitting at desk at U Chicago 1967 copyWho were the most influential people in your career?

Three professors at UPenn. I was in a class taught by Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History, a 1961 National Book Award winner. In those days, urban design was called civic design. That was my minor, and Mumford was my teacher.

William L.C. Wheaton, who taught housing and emphasized that housing, jobs, and transportation are layers of the same cake. You need a place to live, a job, and a way to go between the two. So when you deal with any land-use issue, you need to slice through — deal with — all three layers. I still visualize that three-layer cake.

Professor Martin Meyerson, who later became acting chancellor at UC Berkeley before returning to Penn as President. He advised me to leave the University of California in 1966 and opened the door for me to interview at The University of Chicago to become their assistant vice president for university community planning. I did that (or tried to) with a staff of three, but in less than a year I became the director of physical planning and construction for the campus — with a staff of 32.

Those early relationships established during graduate school had a significant bearing on my career.

Some early life influences?

Picture of Fourth Street St Paul August 2005 copyI grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, a medium-sized city on the eastern side of the Mississippi River with narrow streets, hills, bluffs, and a waterfront. In hindsight, I was introduced to urban context there. My father worked as a US Post Office mail sorter in a 17-story Art Deco building overlooking rail yards. As a preteen, I would take the trolley from home to downtown to see my dad and look out the window and watch the trains below. I’m sure that the time spent downtown influenced my love of cities.

People may be surprised to know…

At about age 13, I worked as a stock boy at the corner grocery. The stock room was in the basement. I had to carry heavy boxes up to the main floor and stock shelves. When I was at the University of Minnesota, I was on scholarship and needed to raise my own money for school. During one summer, I worked nights as a watchman at a meatpacking plant and days as a runner in a parking lot. It was a difficult time for me.

What is your advice for mid-career planners?

You are not through! Nearing age 40, I thought I was going to be in campus planning forever. I was a founding member of the Society for College and University Planning in 1966. Then, I returned to city planning via Palo Alto, and by age 50, found consulting very fulfilling. Balance how good you are professionally, and how much you can do, with what your weak points are, and you will find something that works for you.

What failures have you had to handle?

After I was planning director, I thought I could get a job as a planner almost anywhere. But the environment for new employment was bad, inflation was super-high, and I couldn’t find anything. So, I grabbed an opportunity to be an affordable housing developer. It wasn’t a very successful leap. I was very depressed and thought that was the end of my career. But 18 months later, Naphtali H. Knox and Associates was born and lasted 27 years.

Tell us more about your turn from depression to owning a business and thriving.

My upturn was helped immensely by a planning contract I won to provide Santa Clara County with housing bond coordinator services. That contract, which was renewed annually for 20 years, was my bread and butter. During that time as a consultant, my firm worked throughout California from Susanville to Petaluma to Walnut Creek to San Diego County, and many cities in between, primarily crafting general and specific plans and housing elements. How important it is to take chances and be humble! You will learn, even in adversity, that you are worthy and resilient.

What’s a great way to enrich one’s skills?

Travel broadly and attend planning conferences, especially mobile workshops, as much as you can. An architecture background made me visually oriented. I traveled with organized groups of planners to Scandinavia and to the USSR. I traveled over the course of four years with the Jewish Federation of San Francisco to consult on planning with two urban communities in Israel. Those trips are broadening and fulfilling. You get to see other places and problems and discover new or different solutions that work. And occasionally you meet a colleague who will become a long-term contact.

What do you do for wellness?

I swim 1500 yards three days a week and work out on upper body weight machines on alternate days. We shouldn’t let ourselves get so deep into our work (and that includes editing Northern News) that we ignore our families or bodies. No deadline, client, or meeting is ever more important. So, take care of yourself and maintain a sense of humor.

Portrait of Catarina KiddInterviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

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BOOKS: Evolving community engagement toward the hands and senses rather than the loudest voices

BOOKS: Evolving community engagement toward the hands and senses rather than the loudest voices

Reviewed by Asher Kohn, AICP, April 13, 2022

Photo of Dream Play Build flyer

“Cities are deeply personal,” write James Rojas and John Kamp in the preface of their recently-published book on community engagement, “Dream Play Build: Hands-On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places.” This simple declaration, that urban planning is about managing senses and emotions as much as it is concerned with geometry and space, is the foundation of an original and thought-provoking book on improving community engagement methodology. The urban form is not just land uses and circulation patterns, of course, it is “individuals who have to compromise through space,” according to the authors. Why not put at the forefront of community engagement the individuals who will be affected by future development and how they will experience the new spaces?

For many planners, community engagement is a system that feels broken. Few schools train their planning students in how to pursue engagement, and as Rojas and Kamp point out, many planners treat engagement like school: brief lectures about planning concepts followed by seminar-style conversations. For academically-trained planners, this may be the most familiar way to talk about about a plan, a project, or the profession. It has diminishing returns, however, especially now, as equity in engagement takes center stage.

Rojas and Kamp recommend that planners instead engage with their senses.

Dream Play Build outlines two engagement programs: model building and site exploration. These programs serve to step back from planning policies and issues and instead allow the community to focus more on emotional reflections. The authors point to “emotions …, moods, and atmospheres” that can be elicited by using abstracted models (hair curlers for buildings and ribbons for bike paths, for example) to represent their neighborhoods, present and future. In their site explorations, the authors ask, “What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you smell?” The book gives implementation instructions on how to turn these qualitative feelings into useful planning data, while allowing the community to skip the jargon.

Photo of Found objects, post-Covid Bay Area modelWhereas community engagement may deal with the tools that are needed (to consider infrastructure, for example), the Dream Play Build approach focuses on solutions the community wants to see — “parks that were inviting to a diverse range of residents,” to name one. The crux of their proposal, according to Rojas and Kamp, is that traditional community engagement rewards people who have the time and skill to develop oral arguments and who have mastered the language of planners. The book quotes one transportation planner as saying that “the general town-hall-meeting format” causes people to “double down once they have stated their opinion and it’s been affirmed by others.” By comparison, building models and exploring places lead to consensus on shared experiences — rather than a gradual surrender to the loudest opinions. In many ways, Dream Play Build asks planners to think like activists — advocating and building consensus for a planning solution — rather than as planners forced to defend a side in tense community fights.

This is a radical approach, to be sure. For many of its readers who are professionals, 170 pages may not be enough to convince them to throw out years of engagement practice. Two pages of notes cover Chapters 1  through 5. A deeper bibliography, with more examples to help practitioners, would help to onboard them to Rojas’ and Kamp’s process.

In addition, and perhaps befitting the book’s “Play More, Talk Less” approach, suggestions for online engagement would be helpful. The book criticizes online-first engagement practices, exacerbated, they say, by algorithms that thrive on polarizing communities. It would perhaps have been better to recognize that many jurisdictions require their planners to drive engagement not just in person, but on their laptops and phones as well, and make recommendations accordingly.

“Trust” appears only 11 times in this book, yet it seems to be an underlying theme. If planners trust the communities in which they work — and are “less deterministic and prescriptive,” as voiced by a practitioner in South Colton — the communities will see glimpses of the future they want. Trust begets trust, and by opening engagement to the hands and the senses instead of only to the loudest voices, Dream Play Build proposes a revolution — not just in how community engagement is undertaken, but in the set of skills required to engage those most affected.

This revolution is intimidating. But in fixing a broken system, it may be planners who ought to be intimidated, not the public.

Photo of Asher KohnAsher Kohn, AICP, is a Planner with M-Group. He holds a master’s in city/urban, community and regional planning from the University of Illinois (Chicago), a JD from Washington University (St. Louis), and a BA in history from the University of Maryland. You can reach him at asherj.kohn@gmail.com.

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How cap-and-trade keeps people in their homes in East Oakland

How cap-and-trade keeps people in their homes in East Oakland

Podcast, April 6, 2022

The California cap-and-trade program is building up cash while lowering carbon emissions. Next City looks at one way the money is being put to use [in East Oakland].

 

Photo of Next City webinar copyCalifornia’s cap-and-trade program collected more than $2 billion from polluters in 2021 alone, and cities are using that money for a range of programs, including one in Oakland that sends counselors to help people stay in their homes.

[Essentially, cap-and-trade is a tax on carbon emissions. Thirty-five percent of cap-and-trade money must go to disadvantaged communities through a competitive grant process. “Disadvantaged” refers to those disproportionately affected by air pollution. The money can be used for amenities, some of which might cause “climate gentrification.”]

The Oakland initiative — Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors — targets a five-square mile neighborhood for $28 million in improvements, including a 1.2-mile-long community trail, expanded bike-share, 2,000 trees, and the creation of one of the largest urban aquaponics farms in the country.

 

In this [32 min.] podcast, Next City Executive Director Lucas Grindley talks with Housing Correspondent Roshan Abraham about his story on the team of housing counselors dispatched to ensure that those improvements don’t lead to the displacement of East Oakland residents.”

[$846,000 of the $28 million will go to the team, which has a goal of contacting 14,000 people by the end of the Better Neighborhoods four-year grant cycle. The team wants to empower East Oakland residents by making them aware of resources available, and showing them how to navigate the system. The counselors support tenants who receive eviction notices and help them respond to summonses (140 currently need such support). The team also conducts tenants rights workshops and offers legal cafes and housing cafes.]

[In the podcast, we] meet one of the counselors, Bee Coleman with East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative [EBPREC]. One resident told Coleman that she felt the housing counselors had answered her prayers and ‘you were sent by God.’

“That was her takeaway after having been alone, literally, in the fight for years, and feeling like she did not have support,” said Coleman.

You can listen to this half-hour episode on Apple or Spotify, or via megaphone here.

Republished with permission. Bracketed paragraphs are paraphrased from the podcast.

RELATED

Read in greater detail in Next City an earlier 4 min. piece by Roshan Abraham, “How Oakland anti-displacement advocates use carbon emissions cash.” bit.ly/OakCapTr

The Chronicle covers how an East Oakland grass-roots effort is using money from the same $28 million to help residents tackle climate problems. Planting Justice, along with Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Foundation, is currently working to plant 1,000 fruit trees at residences. The effort is part of the Community Greening project, which aims to plant a total 2,000 trees in the next two years. https://bit.ly/37w2HGa.

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Van Ness BRT is finally running. What does it promise?

Van Ness BRT is finally running. What does it promise?

By Earl G. Bossard, April 10, 2022

“When it was first surveyed in 1856, Van Ness was intended to be the City [of San Francisco’s] spine. …Serving as a firebreak after the 1906 earthquake, Van Ness saved the western part of the city. By the 1920s, … Van Ness [became] the west coast’s largest Auto Row. Once the Golden Gate Bridge was built, it shifted toward regional auto travel. … In September 2013, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project, the core of the Van Ness Improvement Project. Construction of the project began in October 2016.” Source: SFMTA)

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Project is open after more than five years of construction, and 18 years after voters approved a bond measure to add high-quality bus rapid transit lanes to facilitate faster travel and safer, more pleasant walking on Van Ness Avenue. The project was undertaken simultaneously with massive utility work that replaced water, sewer, gas, and other lines, some more than a century old.

Image of muni bus in BRT lane
Van Ness Avenue BRT. Photo: Earl Bossard

Opening ceremonies for the BRT project included a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the Veterans War Memorial on April 1. SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin introduced Mayor London Breed, State Senator Scott Wiener, and other key federal, state and local players. After Mayor Breed cut the ribbon, attendees were treated to a BRT ride up to Bay Street where we gathered and shared our opinions of the new BRT. I had a brief chat with Tumlin, asking him about the prospects for some ideas for improvements I would be suggesting in this article. (I discuss his responses later.)

Mayor Breed cuts the ribbon. From the left are State Senator Scott Wiener and Van Ness restaurateur Joe Betz. Photo: Earl Bossard.
Mayor Breed cuts the ribbon. From the left are State Senator Scott Wiener and Van Ness restaurateur Joe Betz. Photo: Earl Bossard.

I took three opening-day BRT rides and walked the route for the fourth time during recent months, this time observing reactions to its opening. I noticed BRT buses taking advantage of their center-running restricted transit lanes to avoid delays in the mixed-traffic lanes caused by right-turning motor vehicles. I saw emergency vehicles race down Van Ness in the red BRT lanes, perhaps saving a life or reducing fire damage because of faster responses. The BRT’s promised time-savings were difficult to gauge as motor vehicles passed us while we stopped for passengers and when our bus was climbing uphill. When I asked passengers departing BRT for their reactions, I got this response: “It was much faster and will save me a lot of time on my regular journey to work.”

VAN NESS AVENUE BRT PROJECT GOALS AND ACHIEVEMENTS

To evaluate this BRT’s effectiveness, consider what this project was designed to accomplish. SFMTA outlined nine goals for Van Ness Avenue BRT to address citywide needs:

  1. Separate transit from auto traffic to improve travel time and service reliability.
  2. Reduce delays associated with loading and unloading and traffic signals.
  3. Improve the experience for transit patrons.
  4. Improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians
  5. Raise the operating efficiency of Van Ness Avenue.
  6. Upgrade streetscape to support an identity as a rapid transit and pedestrian environment.
  7. Reduce operations costs.
  8. Support the civic destinations on the corridor and integrate transit infrastructure with adjacent land uses.
  9. Accommodate private vehicle circulation and commercial loading.

 

The SFMTA website highlights the project’s achievements meeting the project’s goals.

“… Major upgrades have been made on Van Ness Avenue [with the new BRT, including] …

  • Eye-catching red lanes, new landscaping, and other improvements that make Van Ness Avenue the place to live, visit, and work …
  • [Improved] transit service that addresses traffic congestion on Van Ness Avenue …
  • Some much-needed work underground [including] … extensive utility maintenance, civic improvements, and safety enhancements that have revitalized this historic corridor …
  • [Added] bulb-outs and median refuge spaces to shorten crossing distances, and extended countdown signals so that those crossing can see how much time they have before the traffic signal changes.
  • … Pedestrian Signals … [are] now located at every crosswalk, and at the locations for boarding platforms …
  • Additional directions [are] provided for people who are low-vision and blind.
  • Buses pull up directly to the curb at boarding islands to allow a smoother boarding experience for all passengers and their mobility needs, as the slope of the ramp is lower.
  • Newly paved sidewalks and bright lighting allow for safer walking or rolling on the corridor.”

HOW SUCCESSFUL WILL THE VAN NESS AVENUE BRT BE IN SATISFYING ITS GOALS?

While many might agree that the project has improved conditions along Van Ness, consider how this project can be a foundation for eventually making Van Ness a world class example of effective, multimodal, environmentally friendly urban travel in a magnificent place to live, work, or visit. Future modifications could help advance San Francisco’s Transit First priority, adopted in 1973. “The policy — which prioritizes movement of people and goods with a focus on transit, walking, and biking instead of private automobiles — continues to guide [San Francisco’s] efforts amidst rapid growth and change.”

UC Berkeley Professor Robert Cervero contrasted “High End BRT and BRT Lite” to differentiate projects which claim to be BRTs, but fail to deliver the full benefits BRTs can provide. The Van Ness project, for example, has many high-end BRT features: dedicated bus lanes, enhanced shelters, frequent services, smart cards, multi-door loading, and multiple technology features. However, it lacks some high-end features, notably grade separations, integrated local and express services, and off-vehicle fare collection.

CONSIDERING THE VAN NESS TRAVEL CORRIDOR FROM A LONG-TERM PERSPECTIVE

The Van Ness Travel Corridor

Curitiba, the Brazilian city that pioneered BRT, has followed a “trinary road system” that uses BRT-dedicated lanes and frontal access roads on the center axis, and parallel roads — a block away on both sides — that carry most of the motor vehicle through-traffic. In a modification of that pattern, San Francisco has parallel one-way streets (Franklin and Gough to the west) that now carry about double Van Ness’s daily traffic. Polk Street, to the east of Van Ness, has new bike lanes.

Van Ness BRT could be extended

Officials cite a 32 percent decrease in travel times expected for BRT transit buses along Van Ness. But this may not be enough to convince large numbers to switch from cars to the BRT. The BRT route is just 2.4 miles long, only slightly longer than the 1.9-mile standard set by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to qualify a line as a BRT.

If the Muni Route 49 Rapid were extended from the existing Van Ness BRT southward, with a faster direct connection to BART at 16th/Mission, it could make the BRT faster and more competitive with autos.

BRTs could attract visitors arriving at SFO to use transit

Faster BRTs connecting with BART could make using public transit in San Francisco more attractive to visitors arriving at SFO. With the proper incentives they could pick up a Clipper card at the airport instead of a rental car. Only those planning to go beyond the city would need rental cars and could pick them up at fringe locations.

Reducing the number of cars and car trips in the city

The key to meeting many of Transit First Policy’s goals is a continued reduction in the number of automobiles and automobile trips. If this mode shift continues, eventually the right-most vehicle lanes on Van Ness could be eliminated in favor of wider sidewalks and protected two-way bike lanes. (Watch the first 00:01:45 of “Bike way access problems in Davis, CA” to see how protected sidewalk bikeways work in Budapest, Hungary, and could do so in San Francisco.) Van Ness could be transformed into a truly grand promenade such as Barcelona’s lively La Rambla, with entertainers, food carts, and dining.

Reducing truck delivery blockages

Protected sidewalk bike lanes could promote active transportation for longer distances and be used by e-cargo trikes to make deliveries to businesses and apartment buildings along the corridor, reducing the presence of traffic blocking delivery vans that could be diverted to neighborhood transfer/pickup stations. Space could be allocated near BRT stops for double-decked bicycle parking and bike-share stations. Underground bike parking silos, like those in Tokyo, could be installed near major trip generators and bike/scooter stations.

Talking with the chief

I asked SFMTA Director Tumlin about the possibilities of San Francisco adopting a motor vehicle externalities fee such as London, England, is considering. The fee could be incrementally applied and varied according to the air pollution, noise, space, and safety effects (i.e., costs) the vehicle would be expected to impose on San Franciscans. The fee could first apply to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and later, and at lower rates, to hybrids and electric vehicles. Tumlin thought the tax would be unlikely to get the required supermajority vote and would not be considered now.

I also asked him if much of the remaining curbside parking along Van Ness could be removed to allow for more pickup, drop-off, or delivery spaces. Some spaces were now provided for these purposes, he said. I believe more attention should be given to the SFMTA goal of accommodating commercial loading by reserving more curbside spaces for it.

Odds and ends

The lack of grade separations used by other high-end BRT systems may increase travel times along the Van Ness corridor, especially at locations with opposing transit movements like Market and Geary/O’Farrell. Transfers there may be more frequent and difficult. Although grade separations would offer significant safety and timesaving benefits, they would be very costly and difficult to provide in constrained urban areas and would take a long time to complete.

Wind protection would enhance the narrow bus stop shelters at BRT stops.

Off-vehicle fare collection and gates could reduce vehicle boarding times and the number of non-paying riders.

Conclusion

Within months we should have data regarding the initial ridership and performance of the Van Ness BRT. It will take longer for post Covid-19 pandemic conditions to stabilize sufficiently for us to determine what modifications could make Van Ness Avenue a truly splendid travel corridor.

As is, the new BRT will attract more users to public transit, advancing San Francisco’s Transit First policy.

Earl Bossard, APA Planner Emeritus Network and SPUR member, has been a California resident since 1972 when he started teaching at San Jose State University’s Department of City and Regional Planning where he is Emeritus Professor. He has been a Research Associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute since its founding in 1991. Bossard spent nine years outside the US, lecturing in 14 countries and riding BRTs in Curitiba, Bogota, Guangzhou, and Istanbul. He served on the City of Davis’s Bicycle, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission and its predecessor for 14 years. Bossard holds a PhD in city and regional planning from Harvard University and an MS and a BS in economics from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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