The New Huffman 6-Packs

Lessons Unlearned: Why the Huffman scourge has returned, and how it can be stopped.

Huffman 6-Pack Redux. Street Level blank wall with utility meters greet people walking by.

A new crop of infill apartment and condo buildings are popping up in North Park, Hillcrest, and Mission Hills. Like the nearly universally despised Huffman “6-Packs” from the 1960’s and 70’s, these buildings turn their side to the street, presenting an unfriendly blank wall or a wall filled with gas and electric meters to the street. Forget talking to your neighbor sitting on the front porch. Forget seeing people going in and out the front door. Forget seeing any kind of life, light, or human activity from the street.These new complexes, just like the Huffmans before them, are street-life killers. Nothing less than “Citycide”.

No Front Door. No Front Porch. No sign of life. Only a stark grey wall.

How could this happen again? Didn’t San Diego learn its lesson the first time? Sadly enough, there are no active facade requirements or even recommendations in the Community Plans for residential areas. In fact, the recently released Uptown Community Plan Urban Design Element Draft requires active facades only in commercial areas, but not in residential areas. In 2014, walkable residential neighborhoods should be the Standard for Urban Planning. 

Active Street Facade is important. This building kills street-life.

Walkable neighborhoods start at home, not after you drive to a commercial area. Walkable residential neighborhoods are essential to creating community, encouraging walking, and reducing car trips. 

 If you live in Uptown, North Park, Mission Hills, Golden Hills, South Park, or Mid-City, demand good architecture. Another round of Huffman style multi-unit buildings could kill off what remains of street life in our neighborhoods.


You might like to walk by this building if you are into reading gas meters.

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Hillcrest united behind new University Ave. Bike Plan

At one point this past winter, the division and rancor in Hillcrest over the SANDAG Uptown Regional Bike Plan, and especially plans for University Avenue, seemed to be tearing the community apart. Amazingly, however, over the last few weeks, the community has come together and collalesced behind a new proposal by retired architect, planner, and Uptown resident Jim Frost.

The plan, “Transform Hillcrest”, not only has bike advocates excited, but the Uptown Community Parking District (UCPD), the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA), the Hillcrest Town Council (HTC), and Hillcrest CDC (HCDC) have all signaled their support, and have signed on to a request that SANDAG seriously consider the Plan. GSSD also gives the plan high marks for it’s people-centric design that has the potential  to transform Hillcrest.

A View of East University Ave between Vermont and Richmond

Transform Hillcrest is divided into two sections: East University Ave. and Central University Ave. (click on links for .PDFs). The East University proposal removes one travel lane, and places East-West thru traffic on the south side of University and a local access / parking lane on the North side. The proposal increases parking, provides protected bike lanes, accommodates traffic and improves the pedestrian experience. The Central University proposal makes University one-way from 1st Ave to 4th Ave, freeing space for protected bike lanes and parking. 

Central University Ave proposal between 3rd and 4th

The proposal culminates with the previously proposed Pride Plaza at University and Normal, leading to the Normal Street Rambla. These plans have the potential to transform Hillcrest and be a model for neighborhoods throughout San Diego. 

Proposed Plaza at University and Normal

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Pedestrian “Improvements”: Safety vs. Friendly

Pedestrian Safety and Pedestrian Friendly are often used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. They aren’t. Designs that are Pedestrian Safe are not necessarily Pedestrian Friendly. On the other hand, designs that are Pedestrian Friendly are always safe.

Pedestrian Bridge: Safe but not Friendly

The pedestrian bridge is a classic example of safe but not friendly. Engineers designed the pedestrian bridge to keep walkers out of the dangers of the street. They may keep the pedestrian safe, but they force people to go up and out of their way just to cross the street. In reality the pedestrian bridge has nothing to do with safety. To Traffic Engineers, pedestrians are obstacles that impede the free flow of traffic. Getting rid of them on the street, by making them go over the street solves two problems, in their eyes.

Safe? Never friendly.

These blockades (photo right) are ubiquitous in San Diego. Any DOT Engineer will tell you that they are installed for the safety of the pedestrian. The truth is, they are installed to keep automobile traffic flowing freely. Pedestrian safe? Maybe. Pedestrian friendly? Never.

On the other hand, pedestrian friendly designs are by definition also pedestrian safe. They make walking comfortable, easy, interesting, and safe. So while $433,000 crosswalk – something The City touts as being good for pedestrians – makes crossing the street at that intersection more safe, it does nothing to make the pedestrian experience of the street better. Had a stop sign been installed instead, crossing would have been safer, and traffic would have been calmed along the entire street. The remaining $430,000 could have been spent on street trees, protected bike lanes, and traffic calming for true pedestrians improvements.

Beg Buttons: Good for traffic flow, not pedestrians.

The difference stems from the Engineers priorities and point of reference. If traffic and cars are the priority, you may get “safe” pedestrian designs, but the object will be to maintain the efficient flow of traffic. When pedestrians are the priority, you get designs that are safe and good for people.

So next time SANDAG or The City says they are doing “pedestrian improvements”, ask yourself, is this design really focused on cars, or is it really focused on making the pedestrian experience safe, comfortable, and enjoyable. Don’t just settle for Safe. Demand Pedestrian Friendly streets.

Walter Chambers

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A New Mobility Plan for a Changed World

The Uptown, North Park, and Golden Hill Community Plans are currently being updated. The Mobility Section of these plans will be especially challenging, because everything has changed since these plans were last written. What has changed?

Growth In a Fix Environment:
In the past our mobility plans were focused on private automobiles. As communities grew, roads were widened and more roads built to accommodate the additional cars.  That cannot happen in these older, streetcar neighborhoods. Why?

1) The street layout has been set for decades.
2) Properties fronting the street are nearly 100% built out.
Unless we start tearing down homes to widen roads or make new streets (not going to happen) these two realities won’t change. Whose homes and businesses are we willing to seize and tear down for wider streets? Who decides?

Hillcrest Streets cannot be widened

Climate Change:
Regardless of one’s position on climate change, the State of California, and The City of San Diego has mandated that we do something about it. That includes reducing car trips and increasing walking, bicycling, and transit. 

SB743: If you haven’t heard of this bill that passed last year, you soon will. It completely changes the way transportation efficiency and transportation’s environmental impact is measure. It changes CEQA, California’s environmental quality law. Cars will no longer be the focus of transportation and environmental planning.

A New Way: Because of the above three reasons, and many more, the Mobility Plans of the updated Community Plans must be very, very different than they have been in the past. 

Uptown 21C: In response, Great Streets San Diego has created a proposal that meets the transportation needs of the 21st Century called Uptown 21C. It’s nothing really new … it’s adapted from policies and plans in Vancouver, Portland, and other progressive cities. And it is working in those cities. Read it for yourself, and let GSSD know what you think. 

 -Walter Chambers
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Does Highway Expansion Relieve Congestion?

Apparently not. Yet another study is out showing that widening and building more roads in metropolitan areas does nothing to relieve congestion or reduce delay. This is called “induced traffic”. In other words, if you build it, more cars will come. The result is also an increase in fuel consumption (and one must assume pollution).

DELAY PER CAPITA (Mean Person Hours)


So one must wonder, why is the public continually told that projects that widen and expand highways will reduce congestion? 

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The $433,000.00 Crosswalk

Construction is now underway at the intersection of Park Blvd. and Cypress Street for a new crosswalk. Total cost: $433,000.00. No, that is not a misplaced comma.

Some would say that this new crosswalk, with flashing lights and signs is a good thing because it helps pedestrians. To that I say, a Stop Sign would have achieved the same result, would have cost a lot less, and would have been better for the neighborhood in general.

The problem is that Park Blvd is designed like a freeway with straight, wide travel lanes that go uninterrupted for blocks. By the time cars reach the Cypress Street intersection, cars can, and do, travel at 40-50 mph. The street is designed to be unsafe for people walking and bicycling.

So San Diego’s solution to an over-engineered street that kills pedestrians is an over-engineered crosswalk. It’s a freeway style solution to a freeway-like problem. Unfortunately, it does nothing to improve the street, calm traffic, or make the rest of the street safer for people walking or biking.

Flashing Crosswalk

Worse yet, with its strobe-like flashing yellow lights and flashing signs, the visual pollution to this quiet residential section of Park Blvd is horrendous. 

A Stop Sign would have achieved better results, at a much lower cost to install and maintain. However, if the City was still hell-bent on spending 1/2 Million dollars to make Park Blvd safe, it would have better spent the money on traffic calming, narrowing lanes, protected bike lanes, and … a stop sign. 

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The right to live in the suburbs

I was honored and happy that Voice of San Diego published an op-ed that I wrote about density. I was also pleased to see the comments section light up with arguments for and against density. It’s a conversation that needs to happen.

There is one argument that I find interesting, although ill-informed. It is essentially, “ I have the right to live in the suburbs, and government policy should accommodate everyone wherever they choose to live.”

To that I say, yes – you do have a right to choose wherever you live — as long as you are willing to pay for it.

Low density developments are essentially government subsidizes. Land Use in low density areas is so financially unproductive that it is impossible to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for them to exist. Not only do the streets, sewers, water, utilities, etc cost more to initially install, suburbs do not generate the tax revenue required to maintain them. The suburbs are draining city government coffers at an alarming rate. Is it any wonder San Diego has $3 billion dollar infrastructure deficit?

Low density land use

It not just suburban infrastructure that cost the rest of us. Required services like fire, police, garbage, libraries and schools also must be subsidized. We even pay to bus suburban kids to school because it is usually too far for them walk. 

In the USA, citizens have generally agreed that subsidizing freeway construction is worthwhile because it helps increase the movement of goods and services – and therefore increases the GDP. However a 2-3 hour commute to work is not productive. Not only do the extra cars on the road cause congestion and slow the movement of goods, but they cause wear on the freeway, and damage the environment. Gas taxes and tolls (user fees) only cover about one-half the cost of highways – the rest comes from the general fund.

Sure, you can live in low density areas – IF you will pay extra to maintain your infrastructure, bus your kids to school, pay a carbon tax to offset your car dependency, and pay tolls for highway maintenance … along with many other hidden costs.

If the government subsidizes anything, I would prefer we, as a society, subsidize housing for the poor and homeless, instead of subsidizing housing for a middle class fantasy of living the “good life.”

If you can afford to live the life of the “landed gentry”, good for you!  Congratulations. Just don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it.

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Squeezing into those old, outgrown jeans

I haven’t worn a size 32 waist since college. Yet it doesn’t stop me from trying to squeeze into an old pair of  jeans I keep around “just in case”. The fact is, I’ll never be a 32 again, no matter how good of shape I am in.  I suppose we can all dream, though.

Soon, the traffic in Uptown won’t be able squeeze into its existing street system, based on projected growth. For that matter, neither will the traffic in Downtown, North Park, or Golden Hill.

The Dream

As Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill consider Mobility Plans for their Community Plan Updates, it’s important to ask, “How will we grown without becoming overwhelmed and chocked by car traffic?” 

If they do nothing, or even the same thing, these communities will face a future of congestion, gridlock, and declining quality of life. 

There is a solution. By simply adopting policies that emphasize and prioritize walkable, livable, bike friendly communities – outcomes most people say they want – these urban San Diego neighborhoods can emerge as better and healthier places to live. Sound impossible? Read Uptown 21C and then decide.

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Growing a City

Cities are organisms like people. So, “Urban Planning” has always seemed to be an odd thing to me. It’s akin to attempting “Child Planning”.

As every parent know, there is no such thing as planing a child’s life for the next 25 years. The best “Child Planning” anyone can do is provide a set of fundamental values and priorities, set a good foundation, and then stand back and let them grow up. Too heavy a hand, and they grow up to be dysfunctional.  Too loose and they can be a mess too.

Yet, Planning departments too often use a heavy hand, trying to dictate every little bit of growth, every lot use, every car, every building, everything. Not surprisingly, it never turns out the way they wanted, and the heavy hand usually begets some form of dysfunction. 

The best thing a City’s Planning Department can do is to set fundamental priorities, values, and goals, create a good foundation, and then stand back and let the city grow. Use a gentle hand in making sure the values and priorities remain in focus. But just like a Parent, letting go is the hardest, but most important part of growing up.

Ease up Planners. 

Walter Chambers

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Right Sizing Uptown

The hot topic in Uptown is the Community Plan Update (CPU), with special emphasis on building heights. Is there a right size building height for Uptown? Yes there is – and No there isn’t. 

The streets of Uptown are about as diverse as its populace. There are narrow streets, there are medium width streets, and then there are the behemoths like University, Washington, and Park Blvd.

So when talking about building heights, how could one size fit all? It can’t. There is no “one size fits all” for Uptown. A 65 foot tall building isn’t going to look or feel the same on a narrow street as it is on a 100 foot wide street. That is impossible.

However, there is a right size building height for Uptown. 

What does Uptown Want?
Listen to Uptown residents and most are saying they want a human scaled, walkable, neighborhood that is somewhere between the high-rises of downtown, and the  low-rise no-place of suburbia. Can that desired outcome be translated into building heights?

Too Tall

Too Small

There is a lot of evidence, knowledge and studies on how building heights effect the feel and perception of a neighborhood and the street. The secret (not very well kept) is the ratio of the building height to the width of the street (called HWP). 

For Uptown, a building height to street width ratio between 1:2 to 1:1 is perfect for the desired place-making outcome of a comfortable, pedestrian oriented, human scaled, yet urban environment. A maximum building height in Uptown of 1:1 HWP, and minimum building heights of 1:2 can easily be added to the Community Plan Update.

Confused? Don’t be. It is simple. Here are some examples:

University Ave between 5th and 1st Streets:
Street width = 62 feet
Max. Bldg. Height = 62 feet
Min. Bldg. Height = 31 feet

East of highway 163, University Avenue becomes much wider.
Street width = 100 feet
Max. Bldg. Height – 100 feet
Min. Bldg. Height = 50 feet

A maximum height of 1:1, and minimum height of 1:2 gives Uptown a variety of building heights that fit each neighborhood. It is nuanced, yet simple. Pairing these ratios with architectural design guidelines such as building setbacks after 3 stories, windows and doors to the street, and interesting materials, Uptown would have the foundation for good urban design and great place-making. Click here is a more detailed proposal from Great Streets. Also, see the Great Streets St Louis website for an explanation of HWP with graphics and pictures.

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