Review of Butler Plaza Expansion

This is the text of a letter from Douglas Adams, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, reviewing the proposed expansion of Butler Plaza. A copy of the letter on his company’s letterhead is available in this pdf file.

Brack Barker, Chair
Suwannee-St. Johns Group Sierra Club
PO Box 13951
Gainesville, FL 32604

Dear Mr. Barker:

This letter contains my recommendations and comments on the Butler Plaza Planned Development plans, drawings, and standards that I was asked to review for the Suwannee-St. Johns Group Sierra Club. I am a former twenty-year resident of Gainesville and an urban planner, and I submit the following comments for your consideration (summarized here):

  • Projected increases in Gainesville’s residential population within the development’s catchment area are likely to be insufficient to support a commercial development of this size.
  • The project’s urban form (surface parking, stormwater retention, and generally low-rise commercial buildings) and homogeneous land uses are unlikely to generate the vibrant, lively streetscapes described in the project’s planning documents.

  • Given the predominance of surface parking, the small block size requirements for the project, intended to replicate a ore traditional street grid pattern and associated improved connectivity, will simply serve to collect and distribute cars to “blocks” that are merely parking lots.

  • The development is projected to generate roughly 2,700 peak hour automobile trips (an 111% increase over existing Butler Plaza trips), representing approximately 3.5 additional lanes of traffic. Most of this traffic will be funneled to SW 34th Street and Archer Road – two of Gainesville’s most congested arterials.
  • The project’s non-automobile modal share (bus, bicycling, walking) is expected to be very small given insufficient bus headways and an urban form undesirable to pedestrians (except those walking from their cars to the stores).

  • The Heritage Tree project provisions indicated in the project’s planning documents are insufficient.

  • The City of Gainesville should work with the developers to achieve a project that could achieve the laudable intentions expressed in the project’s planning documents, such as the student-oriented urban village recommended in the 1998 community charrette.

The scale of the project is exceptional – the project is approximately 125% larger than the existing Butler Plaza development on Archer Road between SW 34th Street and SW 40th Blvd. While the project has a greater mix of uses than the exiting Butler Plaza, at roughly 78% retail uses (by square footage), it nonetheless varies little from a typical mall or shopping center. Even with an anticipated full build year of 2030, it is difficult to imagine that southwest Gainesville’s residential population could expand to the level necessary to support this level of commercial development within even that extended timeframe. The west side’s existing relatively high commercial vacancy rates do not speak to a future level of commercial demand necessary for the project’s viability, even in the distant future.

The project’s urban form is dictated by its predominate land uses: surface parking, followed by stormwater retention and generally low-rise commercial buildings (while the planned development standards appear to allow for buildings up to six stories, no buildings taller than two stories appeared in the project drawings/sections). The relationship of the Towne Centre private main street (phase 1B) and its adjacent commercial buildings appears to be inspired by more traditional commercial/mixed-use development, such as that found in many pre-1950s downtowns. Indeed, the Towne Centre district standards reference “vibrant,” “pleasant ambiance,” and “lively streetscapes.” Yet the lack of diverse uses, spacing and homogeneous form of the buildings, and sizing of the streets and semi-public spaces is more reminiscent of the central concourse of a themed outlet mall. Given the almost singular land use (retail), the liveliness of the space will be determined by, with only minor exceptions, the opening hours of the stores.

The project’s relatively small block size requirements are of interest. The intention of the block size requirements is a more traditional street grid pattern and its associated improved connectivity and greater options for the traveling public. Unfortunately, that laudable goal will not be met due to the land uses found on the individual blocks: largely, parking. The dense network of streets and intersections will, in fact, simply serve to collect and distribute cars to “blocks” that are merely parking lots. This network of “streets” between parking lots would appear to be a dramatic failure at attempting to incorporate design principles such as those promoted by the Congress for the New Urbanism and the U.S. Green Building Council and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Neighborhood Development rating, which seek to reject the planning and design mistakes of the late 20th century. The project is simply a shopping center surrounded by vast parking areas and stormwater facilities, with a token nod to current progressive urban design principles.

The Towne Centre district standards state the intention to use building articulation or architectural relief to “provide streetfront vitality.” Yet for building walls along rear or side service areas or along parking areas (a substantial portion of all total building walls), the only requirement is the modulation of the building surface texture at least every 50 feet: hardly meeting the definition of “vitality.”

Using the trip generation rates contained in the project’s planning documents, the development is projected to generate roughly 2,700 peak hour automobile trips – an 111% increase over existing Butler Plaza trips. This volume represents approximately 3.5 additional lanes of traffic during the AM and PM peak hours. With the exception of those traveling between the project and areas to the northwest, these vehicles will be funneled to Archer Road and SW 34th Street. These are among the city’s most congested arterials; the project will further burden these streets. It will not be possible for the city to expand arterial and intersection capacity sufficiently to accommodate the project. Additional capacity would improve congestion on a short-term basis, but additional capacity induces additional demand, and the roads will eventually exceed their former levels of congestion. (However, there are limitations to additional traffic that additional street capacity induces; the cycle of widening streets eventually results in an urban form so undesirable that the area collapses.)

The project’s planning documents indicate that the project provides “exceptional access and circulation with an integrated system of transportation connections for automobiles, bicycles, pedestrians, and buses.” While perhaps not an untrue statement, non-automobile modal share will likely be trivial (confirmed by the automobile trip generation rates, as discussed above). Bus use would be expected to be low; headways longer than 10-15 minutes typically result in very low ridership rates. Of the four routes serving the project, only one (Route 12) has headways shorter than 15 minutes. Two of the other routes have headways of approximately 25 minutes and 45 minutes (90 minutes on the weekend), and the fourth route only operates on the weekend, with 60 minute headways. Such headways will have little impact on automobile use. (However, the proposed bus rapid transit route on SW 62nd Blvd is notable and should be implemented.) Similarly, while the project shows an extensive pedestrian circulation plan, few would actually choose to walk to the project. Unlike other transportation modes, such as automobile and bicycle, in which use rates are determined by the extent of the network and adequacy of facilities, walking rates are largely determined by adjacent land uses, not by a pedestrian circulation network. While an extensive sidewalk network is certainly of value, people will not choose walking over other transportation modes unless the route is interesting, provides interim destinations, and feels comfortable and safe. Walking rates to the project would be expected to be the same as any typical suburban retail development: exceptionally low.

The project’s planning documents indicate that shared parking will be used to minimize the parking need, yet it is difficult to imagine the ability to take advantage of the land use. With the exception of the hotel, theater(s), and restaurants open in the evenings, most tenants in the project will have similar hours of peak parking demand.

The street design for the Towne Centre private main street includes a number of undesirable features. The design speed is indicated as 15 MPH, but with 18′ lanes, cars would be expected to travel significantly faster (10′ – 12′ lanes are standard). Additionally, the planned front-end angle parking is less safe than back-end angle parking – now the norm in many communities.

The vehicular traffic generated by the project and associated parking demand could be reduced by a robust transportation demand management program. Such a program could include the following, for example:

  • Incentives to encourage employees of the development to travel by means other than single-occupancy vehicles
  • Creation of a transportation management association to encourage and development programs to reduce automobile use, which would include representatives from each project tenant
  • Price parking to encourage non-automobile use
  • A shuttle network to connect the project to locations with high numbers of potential customers, such as the University of Florida
  • Develop a true shared parking program in which customers would park in nearby under-used parking facilities and take a shuttle to the development
  • Work with the Gainesville Regional Transit System to extend bus routes to the development, increase bus frequency, and create comfortable and convenient bus stations within the development

Unfortunately, given the variety of commercial developments available to Gainesville shoppers and the project’s lack of uniqueness, most shoppers will simply choose the development to which is it is most convenient to drive.

The Heritage Tree project provisions indicated in the project’s planning documents are insufficient. The developer shall “endeavor” to preserve 25% of the Heritage Trees “of high quality species in excellent or good condition,” with the exception of those within proposed public rights-of-way. With such loose language, it is easy to imagine the preservation of few or any Heritage Trees. Additionally, the project’s planning documents indicated that of those Heritage Trees protected, “significant” grading changes shall not occur within 2/3rd of the area under the canopy drip line. Landscaping professionals recommend that no grading occur under the entire canopy drip line to ensure adequate tree protection.

The project’s planning documents contain a variety of planning and design standards, the stated intentions of which are inspired by and grounded in solid, progressive, and proven ideas and methods for achieving livable communities. Unfortunately, the gap between the project and those intentions is dramatic. Assuming the area in question is to be developed, a very different design and mix of uses would meet those intentions, such as the student-oriented urban village recommended in the 1998 community charrette, and should be pursued. The City should work with the project developers accordingly.

Yours truly,
Douglas E. Adams, AICP

Associate & Project Manager