Friday, April 30, 2010

On the Arroyo

Here's an example of local preservation of historic architecture, the old Vista del Arroyo Hotel, now the home of the Ninth Circuit Court. I worked on it in 1985 to finish out some of the chambers and offices of the judges while working at NTD in Pasadena, a very interesting project. This work did not include the historic bungalows which were restored as part of a later, very controversial project. The hotel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places since April 02, 1981.

This is one of the most visible landmarks in Pasadena, especially as you enter from the west, perched in the hill overlooking the Arroyo Seco. The structure was built in 1920-1937 by architects Marston Van Pelt & Maybury when earlier wooden structures were demolished. It was once commandeered as a WWII Army hospital, and eventually was purchased by the Federal Government for use as a courthouse. A more complete history is here.

The structure was adapted to courthouse standards of the time, with separate circulation for the judges, the public, and the defendants facing trial, usually handled with a separate circulation and holding system. The old rooms and corridors were remodeled for the offices of the judges, and a new "en banque" central courtroom was designed, along with a research library and a commissary. All at the same time that the basic historic features were being preserved. This kind of preservation and adaptive reuse goes a long way towards conservation of embodied energy and also demonstrates the efficiencies of upgrading the mechanical and electrical systems to save power and water.

Is Historic Preservation "Green"? It can be one of the best ways to go if it's done right and the new use of the structure is compatible with its configuration, scale and design.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Climate Change Officially Sanctioned

The US Government has finally taken a public stand on the issue of how human activities impact climate change. It has issued a report that interprets climate change data that emphasizes the impact that greenhouse gasses (GHG's) make on the environment. Considering that 70 percent of the average city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, this would necessarily be the first thing to tackle, and the easiest in terms of not only preventing more emissions by not building enormous amounts of square footage, but reducing existing levels by retrofitting existing structures and facilities as well as replacing old and inefficient sprawl with clean and effective industries.

EPA has proposed far tougher standards for ozone limits, for example, in January. This applies to the entire spectrum of pollution sources including power plants, factories and landfills, putting much of the US. in violation of Federal law. So, of course the industry pushes back through the Chamber of Commerce to kill this effort. Since the US has among the highest emissions on the globe, the concerted effort by industry (with China's help) to shut down global emissions policies by our Federal Government amounts to a violation of global accord that has been evident since the Bush administration boycotted Kyoto in 2005.

I've talked about the Chamber's short-term profits-first efforts at slowing progress in the name of outmoded production models before. It keeps us embedded in an increasing carbon cycle that will ultimately trap industry in a backwater of uncompetitive practices as well as an inescapable shutdown as emissions continue to increase in the oil and coal based industries without a means to produce energy or power industry with other sources.

It's time to take this policy seriously, and respond in every community in the state by reviewing and improving these facilities. They've already been mapped and it's interactive on line.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It Plays Out

San Francisco is dealing with the impact of SB 375 imposed requirements as are cities all over the state, and shares some of their concerns with how the land use and planning regs associated with this legislation will affect their ability to maintain local character and control, as well as how to pay for the planning work required. Another unfunded mandate, as they say. This BIA-sponsored legislation also creates requirements for high density growth statewide, supposedly to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The Crosscurrents Blog reports on the local Earth Day summit on the subject held in Oakland. Michael Woo, the Dean of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona was there promoting SB 375 as he is with all SCAG events. Local city questions and resistance was met with County Supervisor edicts that communities must not leave the table or be excluded from transit funding. Cities must also rezone to accommodate the new growth being allocated to them. If they don't rezone, any interested person can sue to force a rezoning under SB 375.

Other impacts of SB 375 are brought up in a comments section on LA Streetsblog, which points out that upzoning in land use creates tremendous profits for developers while they continue to deplete resources, add traffic and consume water. The comments are about traffic and zoning. The blog also reports that the League of California Cities met on Earth Day to reinforce their position that the state must pay for the costs of the implementation of this legislation, the first line of defense against its implementation in its current form that requires huge new development numbers in each city.

As the League states on its own site, it does not support AB 32 nor especially SB 375, but rather retains a neutral position. The League also supports the Institute of Local Government site, which provides online planning tools and resource guides for communities as well as some specific local city databases and outreach networking.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Transbay Transit Approval

Note in the inbox today, the approval for the design of the SF Transbay Transit Center has allowed the project to go forward with the $400 million in Federal stimulus funds to complete the project started in 2008. Shovel ready, in other words. Star on the map marks the spot.

This provides the terminus for the High Speed Rail project in California, also a recipient of Federal dollars. I've reviewed the logistics of this HSR concept before, and hope that it actually gets implemented as HSR, and not a stop-everywhere-rail. That doesn't do justice to the scale of the system design, which is intended only to rocket from one major city transportation hub to another.

An interactive map for the project is here, and the timeline can be found on the Transbay Transit Center website.

As I've said before, the public project development and renderings have foreshadowed this development for a long time.

Meantime, action further south has delayed the DEIR on the HSR project until next year, and some of the cities are actively opposing the plans due to the costs of the system and the dislocation and disruption that new tracks and stations will create in their cities. At the state level, the State Auditor has issued a review reflecting the cost concerns of the Planning and Conservation League, which has filed a lawsuit over the dismissal of an alternate route in the Bay area through Sacramento.

Just for fun: a slideshow of transit maps that shows how complex and intricate systems data is viewed over time. Real-time digital information is greatly improving the mapping information, and these are moving onto the iPhone platform, of course. Latest hot app that actually helps people navigate the urban terrain.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Change the System



A World People's Summit on Climate Change took place last week in Bolivia, as a reaction to the failings of the Copenhagen Climate summit last December. Bolivia's privatized water wars 10 years ago set the stage for Bolivian protests against the accords set in this summit by the leading global powers. One of the key initiatives of the climate conference in Bolivia is to come out with a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Democracy Now speaks with South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, the co-president of the Rights of Mother Earth Working Group at the summit.

This gathering of 15,000 people at a global conference that speaks to issues ignored by the world leadership looks to a powerful new vision of climate change policy from Bolivia that evolved from social movements through a participatory process, and the end result was a transformative and radical view of earth: that it belongs to all of her people.

This isn't just some value shift as has been portrayed in the major digitally produced movie production by James Cameron, Avatar, that has an Earth Day action tie-in. It's a deep, resonant call to action by the third world countries that have been excluded from a dialogue about climate change that has severely impacted their ecologies.

Update: The BASIC group (Environmental ministers of Brazil, South Africa, India and China) are not optimistic about an agreement being reached this December in Cancun, Mexico. This group will expand to include other countries in the global south.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day - Looking Ahead

Amory Lovins, the very influential Chief Scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), heads up a non-profit that has established leadership in shifting the global economic model to "soft path" restoration of natural systems. Their commitment is to "drive the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a world that is thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, for ever." They take pause on this Earth Day, and look to further partnering with industry and innovative development in a way that changes how our country produces and consumes energy. The explanation of this thrust is as follows:

RMI’s Next Big Thing will bring together all of our 27 years of innovation and engage the world in our most ambitious and important work yet. Put simply, this effort is aimed at changing the way most people have been getting and using energy since the Industrial Revolution.With this project, we want to set in motion a movement to end the increasingly dangerous practice of digging up fossil fuels formed hundreds of millions of years ago from primeval swamp goo, then wastefully burning these fuels to form carbon dioxide that recreates those swamps’ tropical climate.

We will extend from oil to all fossil fuels our experience in envisioning and catalyzing energy systems that, in our Trustee Ray C. Anderson’s words, take nothing, waste nothing, and do no harm. We mean to speed the transformation from pervasive waste to elegant frugality, from causing scarcity by inattention to creating abundance by design, from liquidating energy capital to living better on energy income.


In short, we are Reinventing Fire™: driving the business-led transition from oil, coal, and ultimately gas to efficiency and renewables. This fire in our belly will engage all of RMI’s 88 staff, our global network of colleagues and supporters, and new advisors and partners from the private and public sectors.
Reinventing Fire aims to change minds and clarify choices by showing what exists, what works, what makes sense and makes money, what can change the world.

Most importantly, the four principles of Natural Capitalism are outlined as part of the strategy for change:

Radical resource productivity
Biomimicry
Service and flow economy
Reinvestment in natural capital

These provide valuable benchmarks for all efforts at true sustainability, which have to measure the results of this kind of change. This is the path that the future needs to take, and so need to be part of public policy at all levels.

Fourtieth Earth Day

I remember the first Earth Day, 1970, in high school science class, and having a discussion about what effects pollution, deforestation and oil spills were having on the environment. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" had been published eight years earlier, and we had all just seen the first image ever taken by humans of the whole Earth, from Apollo 8 in 1968. That blue globe floating in space; it was kind of a shocker. The "Population Bomb" had been written by Paul Ehrlich, also in 1968 at the behest of David Brower, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. There was an eruption of awareness that our human civilization was becoming very destructive on a planetary scale. But nobody even thought about climate change then, or what humans could do collectivelly to avert the damage we're doing.

At the time, Sierra Club was the leading proponent of environmentalism. It established a day in honor of its own first president and founder, John Muir, born on April 21. Sierra Club's original mission was to protect Yosemite National Park. It subsequently established Muir Woods National Monument to honor him as well (photo above). National memorial dates were established such as Arbor Day on April 25, and National Park Week on April 18 -25. His writings and papers are archived at the University of the Pacific for research.

John Muir was one of the great naturalists and public activists for environmental preservation in this country. His view was that people had to understand the world through experience with nature in all of its facets. His quote: "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness".

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Coexisting with the Wild Things

Botswana is home to the cheetah, herds of gemsbok, prides of lions, giraffes and all manner of wildlife on its expansive plains. This wildlife is now under conservation as part of an evolving approach to resource management.

It's also part of a new emerging Africa, which is slowly evolving reform in governance, to counteract the corruption in government and society which keeps it from moving forward. New entrepreneurial alliances emerging from this country and others on this continent are bringing many people out of poverty at the same time that resources are being directed towards constructive business and infrastructure improvements. These things ease the poverty which degrades the environment of the African bush and the cities and townships which are a legacy of colonial imperialism. A reflective article by Bono expresses some of the cultural and innovative fusion that is taking place.

Africa has a unique position in history as the birthplace of the human race, as well as being a continent with tremendous ecological biodiversity. But this is being threatened by the poaching and decimation of remaining wildlife. What this makes startlingly clear, per an article in The Atlantic, is that destruction of wildlife disrupts the entire cycle of life on this continent, which still heavily relies on natural processes, local farming and tribal migration to balance the ecosystem. Drought is forcing the nomadic tribes to abandon the range and camp out near the roads, as subsistence in this environment is no longer possible, and the stress is seen in the declining wildlife as well.

Addressing the consequences of climate change, as well as preserving and restoring the African bush heritage, are critical components of the emerging Africa and its new self-identity that moves beyond the tribal divisions and becomes self-reliant.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting a Grip on Sprawl

In an endless debate, local governments are increasingly encouraging or even requiring LEED certification in new high-density development, which is nice, but most continue to require generous minimum parking supply, which contradicts their goals, as this article points out. "Smart Growth" as a cornerstone of anti-sprawl measures doesn't work. Here's a site called "Dumb Growth" that goes into it in detail.

First of all, this means that density isn't cutting down on traffic or emissions; it's the pattern of sprawl built into city and regional codes and also the contingent highway grid in California. It's also based upon an unsustainable model of growth for its own sake, as is taking place in all regions of the US.

The older communities in Los Angeles and Pasadena area are pre-war planning models, which is why they work (township grid) that evolved prior to the highways. After that, we got the Orange County model of development, where many folks ran off to in 1970 when the court-ordered bussing hit. Perfect storm. But it relieved the development pressure in the Pasadena area until about 1980. Then Old Town became the model for slow-growth, with GMI implemented in 1990 to stop growth. The new General Plan adopted in 1992 assigned growth into specific plan areas with design guidelines (the Grey Book). Got condos packed in there anyway, overloading the existing street grid with traffic, even with lower parking ratios in the new developments. Now Pasadena has traffic gridlock, pollution, over development and very unhappy residents who are beginning to leave the community.

Here's a very relevant comment from a planner to an article called "Sprawling Misconceptions":

I find it funny when conservatives defend sprawl, since there is very little that is market-driven about it, except that it is easier to do nowadays. Not only is sprawl mandated, but it has been mandated for about 50 years in most of the country. Long enough that it is ingrained into our developing and financing structures.

Starting in the 1950’s the federal govt issued guidelines that showed how to incorporate cul-de-sacs and very long streets to pack more houses onto a site, discourage pedestrian use, and limit access to neighborhoods from large highways only. Separation of uses was considered an obvious virtue, and the guidelines deliberately prescribed one type of residential development only. These were fairly quickly incorporated into requirements all over the country.
This is not even remotely controversial. Anyone studying planning today learns about it and reads the original documents.

It’s amazing how many people think the market determined the look of this country–it did not. As a great example, look at Williamsburg. Now turned into a colonial museum, there are many people who would pay top dollar for a home in a location like that, but developers can’t sell it to them: it would be literally illegal to recreate the same layout in almost every part of this country. So, instead, we Americans visit, walk around, and marvel at it, wondering why we don’t make places like that anymore.


Houston is often listed as a city that shows that sprawl is inevitable. In reality, Houston mainly just doesn’t like the word “zoning,” and uses all of the other land-use regulation tools that other large cities do, especially those that dictate how things are organized into sprawl patterns.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Before I was Born



Back in the good old days, solvents such as perchlorate fuels from industrial processes, aerospace, government suppliers and dry cleaners were dumped into the local San Gabriel Valley soils at the beginning of the Sputnik era. It's contaminated one of the largest groundwater basins in the region, holding over 3.5 trillion gallons of water. This water is not being replenished adequately any more due to subsequent paving over of vast areas with asphalt and concrete, which creates not only water supply and water quality issues, but contributes to ground subsidence and dying trees and vegetation as water table levels recede due to over-pumping. The EPA identified this area in 1979, and has completed the necessary data review from groundwater samples at the local wells along Main Street in Alhambra (black dots in picture above). This is from a file found at the EPA Region 9 website for Area 3.

A report from the Pasadena Star-News on April 15, 2010 reported on the EPA outreach that took place this past week in the San Gabriel area:

Progress is being made on the federal effort to clean contaminants in the San Gabriel Valley's last Superfund site.

EPA officials are meeting with Alhambra, Rosemead and San Gabriel residents to explain the extent of groundwater contamination under their cities.

"Now we have the data, so we can begin to consider ways to clean it up," EPA area project manager Lisa Hanusiak told residents at the Alhambra Library on Wednesday.

The area in question, which includes the cities of Alhambra, San Gabriel and parts of Rosemead, Temple City, San Marino and South Pasadena, was declared a Superfund site in 1984. But it was not until a few months ago that EPA scientists completed their full investigation on the extent of contamination there.

That investigation revealed extremely high levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) - up to 300 times the level allowed for drinking water. Those chemicals - used in degreasers, industrial solvents and dry cleaning solutions - are carcinogens.

The chemicals leached into the groundwater after decades of dumping by businesses.
The EPA is attempting to determine the companies responsible for the contamination in order to get them to pay for part of the cleanup.

The EPA will spend the next year preparing several plans for removal of the contamination. Officials will select a remedy by next year, Hanusiak said.

There is a watchdog group that's emerged, The San Gabriel Valley Oversight Group. It's a nonprofit, public benefit corporation. It was founded in 2006 by a group of five individuals who live in the San Gabriel Valley, California. They have very interesting information on their site, including a real informative power point slide show. The chart below is at the end of the slide show, and shows how the water levels in the wells have been consistently declining over the last 17 years.

It's important to not only clean out these plumes of contamination, but to also develop remedies for unpaving as much area as possible along with recharging strategies for when it does actually rain. We're definitely running into critical groundwater issues now, and it will also mean water recycling to conserve what we have at this point, since climate change has chased away the clouds and rain.

How things have changed since before I was born.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Small Hiatus

It's time to pay the piper for those actions and policies that our government undertakes in our behalf. Or at least that Congress undertakes on behalf of their benefactors...oil industry, military (same thing), dams and coal plants. The cost of this being the worst insult.

So I can spend my own time and money trying to undo the damage.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Theology Meets Nature

Have a beautiful and restful Eastertide. Whatever your persuasion, celebrate the regenerative spirit that is the essence of our earth. In this resides the importance of stewardship of the land, not its ruination.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Filing - The Final Solution

After having the recent opportunity to visit my tax guy and my legal guy, I find that we all approach our information systems the same way. Each different pile has exactly the information one needs and is a relational system, depending upon where the stack is located and how tall it is.

With that thought in mind, I recall the famous last shot in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", with the camera panning out from the Ark being located in the government storage facility, which is an homage to one of the final shots in Citizen Kane. That's the picture above. Best way to permanently lose something is to misfile it, hence the piles in clear view. Here's the Indy page on it.

During the chase scene at the beginning of the "Raiders" movie, you briefly see a broken crate with the Ark partially revealed. 9906753 was the identifying number used on the crate that held the Ark of the Covenant in the cavernous warehouse of Hangar 51. It is only later revealed in the fourth Indy film, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", that the Ark had been taken to Hangar 51, a military facility near Groom Lake in Nevada. All this - for four movies - because an adequate filing system isn't available for the Federal Government.

Human nature, I suppose. Otherwise we would never have found the Dead Sea scrolls and the cuneiform tablets scattered all across the Middle East. Which means they were all lost by the folks that were supposed to keep track of them.

Have a great April Fool's Day!

PS you can do this digitally, too. Go to Bump Top owned by Google now.