Thursday, January 5, 2023

Happy Birthday to Zack Urban Solutions!

Happy Birthday to Zack Urban Solutions! I can hardly believe it, but it has been exactly one year since I left local government and launched my consulting business. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun!

I have been fortunate to work with 17 different clients on a wide range of great projects in my first year. For my very first contract I was a small part of the large and mighty team lead by the Central Valley Community Foundation that put together a successful grant application which will bring $65 million to the Central Valley to kick start an agriculture-related tech cluster, including the Innovation Center for Research and Entrepreneurship in Ag Food Technology & Engineering (iCREATE) which will hopefully be located in a restored Bank of Italy Building in Downtown Fresno. I’m also a sub-consultant to WRT on the update to the Tower District Specific Plan, which is gratifying because the Tower is my neighborhood and because I co-authored the design guidelines for the original specific plan 20 years ago. As a proud Shoupista (if you know, you know), I am very excited to be a sub-consultant to Eleven-X on the Commercial Corridor Performance Parking Plan for Arlington, VA. I will also be a sub-consultant on the team lead by Foster and Partners and ARUP, who will be designing the first four high-speed rail stations in the US in Merced, Fresno, Hanford, and Bakersfield. I’m also working on a few office projects, including a new headquarters building for a marketing firm that has an innovative vision for melding a traditional office with remote work and an expansion for a growing video production company.

Thus far, housing development has made up a majority of my work. My residential development clients are small to mid-size independent builders. They are flexible, creative, and all-around cool folks who believe in Fresno. I am thrilled to help them deliver the same kinds of projects that I championed while I worked in local government. I have been able to help them with everything from site selection, due diligence, visioning, alternatives analysis, site planning, entitlements, and general troubleshooting. In all, I am working on 10 residential/mixed-use infill projects in the Fresno area. Together these projects will deliver 731 units of housing to the market (363 market rate, 368 affordable). Most are promoting revitalization in Downtown, the Blackstone corridor, and West/Central Fresno, and a few small projects will provide appealing for-rent housing options in high-opportunity infill areas in north Fresno and Clovis. I also started as an instructor for the Incremental Development Alliance, teaching aspiring small developers across the US how to navigate their local zoning ordinances.

Want to see more about the things I am working on? Check out my current projects page on my website:

Although I am working on a lot of great projects, I still have some bandwidth—so if you want to partner on something cool, hit me up! If it promotes dense infill housing, walkability, bikeability, transit ridership, downtown and neighborhood revitalization, urbanization of commercial corridors, and the creation of fun and inclusive places then I am all over it.

I am beyond grateful that this launch was a success. Thank you to all of my clients and to everyone who has helped me with leads. Thank you also to all of my  friends with consulting experience who have offered sage advice—I couldn’t have done it without you! I am looking forward to all of the exciting and fulfilling work that 2023 will bring.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

EcoNews Podcast

I had so much fun with the last podcast, that I did another one! The kind and gracious folks at the EcoNews, Tom Wheeler and Colin Fiske, hosted me and I really enjoyed it. They run this podcast out of the great town of Arcata in Humboldt County, California, and we discussed the principles and practice of urbanism and how much it may or may not apply to their rural region of California. (Spoiler alert: Urbanism works everywhere!) 

If you wondering what I am all about, or what kind of things I do as a consultant, this is a really concise explanation. Listen to it here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Fresno's Best Podcast

Jordan Mattox recently interviewed me for his podcast, humbly named Fresno's Best Podcast. I had a lot of fun and I think we covered some really neat topics. He's a great host--he has segments like Favorite Place to Eat and Overrated or Underrated that took the conversation into interesting territory and forced me out of my standard stump speech. Check it out!

Monday, February 7, 2022

Announcing My New Professional Adventure

Well, it’s a wrap! After 7.5 years with the City of Fresno and 23 years in local government, I have left my position as Assistant Director of Economic Development/Downtown Czar with the City of Fresno. On January 4 I entered Fresno City Hall as a public servant, and I left that evening as a private citizen. It felt scary and thrilling and weird.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Urban Retail: Towards a Balanced Approach

Historic mixed use buildings with ground floor retail in Port Townsend, Washington.

Mixed use downtowns were the hearts of our cities for centuries. Early 20th century reformers, emboldened by their successes in zoning dirty industrial uses away from residential areas, decided that commerce was also an unhealthful influence on neighborhoods and began to outlaw the mixing of uses in early zoning ordinances. As the auto age ramped up, commerce often came hand-in-hand cars and traffic, so the urge to separate retail from homes grew stronger. The mixing of retail and residential uses was prohibited in most urban areas for a long time, and it was one of the factors in the long decline of American downtowns. 

Jane Jacobs broke with the conventional wisdom and advocated for mixed uses in the 1960s, but it took planners a while to listen. By the 1990s and 2000s urban revitalization professionals realized that mixed use development was something to be embraced. They saw that vibrant downtowns and urban neighborhoods had mixed uses, and that the most fun, active streets were the ones that had shops on the ground floors. Unfortunately, some cities went overboard and required ground floor retail everywhere. Many of the mandated retail spaces sat vacant, because the population of the area just couldn't support them.

We need a sensible approach to mixed use that reflects realities and limitations of retail, while also maintaining a commitment to vibrant streetlife. To be successful we need to redefine retail and deploy it in a very strategic way.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Greetings From Fresno!

(Source: Fresno Bee)
Hello, Internet! I'm still alive! 

If you follow this blog, you may be wondering why I abruptly stopped writing. Well, after my last post on Downtown Burlingame, my life got really crazy. Someone made me a job offer that I couldn't refuse, so after 11 years of happily contributing to the creation of a great downtown in Redwood City, I left the Bay Area for California's wild interior. The last several months have been dominated by relocation-related activities that kept me away from

Where did I go? I am now in Fresno, California. With a population of 515,000, Fresno is the 5th largest city in California, and the 34th largest in the US. It is the heart of a very productive agriculture region, and industry related to farming and food processing fuels much of its economy. It is central California's primary hub of finance, health care, education, and culture. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: A New Streetscape for Burlingame Avenue

Burlingame, California is a city south of San Francisco on the San Francisco Peninsula. It features a very nice downtown district which has, among other virtues, an unusually high quantity of retailers. While great dining and entertainment has come to many revitalized downtowns, most just can't seem to nurture a good retail scene. Burlingame has managed to pull it off. 

The City is in the process of giving a makeover to Burlingame Avenue, their downtown's main street. I visited the area recently, and the central portion was completed and it looked gorgeous. The new design is a big improvement, and I think they are doing a wonderful job of making a great place greater. When completed, it may be one of the most beautiful streets in Northern California. 

Here's what I saw... 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fonzie Flats

Fonzie with the Cunninghams in his accessory apartment above their garage.
(From the TV series Happy Days.)

Accessory apartments are small secondary housing units which are built on a lot with a single-family house. They have been put in attics, basements, above garages, and in detached back yard cottage structures. They used to be very common, but were outlawed in many communities during the mid-twentieth century.

They are often called granny flats or ADUs (accessory dwelling units), but let's forget all of that.
Granny Flats makes them sound old fashioned and out of date, and ADU sounds like a disease or a boring bureaucratic mechanism.

I propose that from this point forward we call them Fonzie Flats. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Housing Affordability at the Breaking Point - Part 4: Do We Need Affordable Housing or Affordable Living?

(Photo source:

Housing is too expensive in many of America's major metropolitan areas, and something must be done about it. However, it would be a tragic mistake to focus only on the cost of rent, or the sales prices of homes. As we work to bring down housing costs, we also need to make affordable options available in other aspects of people's lives which can offset high rent. There are two primary areas that we should focus on in order to promote affordable living

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Housing Affordability at the Breaking Point - Part 3: Housing Shortage or Urbanism Shortage?

Greenwich Village, New York City. A lot of people enjoy this sort of thing.
(Source: www.

In case you hadn't yet noticed, urban living is pretty hot right now. Preference surveys show time and time again that a strong share of the overall American public would prefer to live in a walkable urban neighborhood than a suburban subdivision which caters only to the automobile. A majority still prefers suburban living, but the minority which craves city living is large and getting larger.

Friday, January 10, 2014


I'm happy to announce that my humble little blog has hit a cool milestone. Right at the New Year I received my 10,000th page view. Some urbanism blogs get that in a week, but for my backwoods-of-the-internet website it is kind of a big deal to get that many hits just before one full year of posting. I'm happy that some folks are checking it out, and I hope it is half as useful to you as my favorite blogs are to me.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Housing Affordability at the Breaking Point - Part 2: Fighting Gentrification (with Luxury Condos)

Well this is just great. Now I'll never be able to afford a used Hyundai.

Gentrification is back as a hot topic. High income people of various stripes (in San Francisco it is tech workers, in New York it is bankers) are ruining nice, bohemian neighborhoods by moving into the area and driving up the rents. 

At least, that's the word on the street.

While it is understandable how people would interpret the situation this way, this idea is misguided and counterproductive.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Incremental Urbanism is the Key to California's Future

Incremental Urbanism in Washington DC
(Source: Wikipedia)

I am a big proponent of Incremental Urbanism, which is the creation of great places on a lot-by-lot basis, by dozens or hundreds of land owners and developers over time. Many of our favorite historic cities were built this way, and they still work very well today.

I just wrote a blog post for the California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. As you may know, CNU is famous for large, beautiful, walkable, master-planned projects. Things have changed, though, and these opportunities are dwindling in California. I believe that California's new frontier is on small, non-contiguous infill sites within our existing towns, cities, and metropolitan areas. Can we pivot and master this new realm? I propose that it is essential that we do, and in my CNU-CA blog post I explore how it can be done. Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Housing Affordability at the Breaking Point - Part 1: Home Is Where the Supply Is

Black Friday at WalMart? Zombie Apocalypse? Nope, just a San Francisco open house.

In most areas with out-of-control housing prices, it is due in large part to the supply of housing being far lower than the demand for housing. My county is tens of thousands of units short of what is needed today, not to mention the homes that we will need to build to accommodate future needs. 

Only official deed-restricted Below Market Rate units feel satisfying to some housing advocates, but BMR strategies alone will never fix the problem in areas with such severe market imbalances. 

Housing Affordability at the Breaking Point

(Source: Unknown)

Despite the ravages of the 2008 housing bubble burst, and the ensuing recession, affordable housing is a tremendous problem in many parts of the US. The problem is most acute in the big, prosperous metropolitan areas with vibrant urban cores and physical constraints on outward growth, particularly New York, Boston, Washington, and my region, the San Francisco Bay Area. However, it is also an issue in pockets of many other cities in the US, particularly areas that are amenity-rich, job-rich, walkable, and well-served by transit.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Worst NIMBY Ever?


Every city planner knows the acronym NIMBY, which stands for Not In My Back Yard. It is used to reference people who are against projects. Typically, it is not used for all opponents, but those who are irrational in their opposition, and who are against not just bad projects, but everything

Having worked in local government for 15 years, I have heard a lot of NIMBY stories, but this one takes the cake...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Understanding the Quirks of Incremental Urbanism

New York, under construction lot-by-lot.
(Source: New York Historical Society)

For the past 70 years or so, much of what we have built in the US has been of the large,  "master planned" variety of development. Large areas of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of acres are all laid out and designed at once, and built out by a single builder or a handful of builders working off of a coordinated design. Once they are built out, these areas change very little over time. During the era of suburban expansion, residential subdivisions, garden apartments, office parks, and shopping malls all fit into the master planned category of development.

When New Urbanism rose onto the scene, many of its early and iconic projects, such as Seaside and the Kentlands, were also large, master-planned developments. Unlike their sprawl counterparts they were walkable, compact, mixed-use, and awesome... but they were still large and master-planned. 

This feels normal to our generation, but historically this is an anomaly. Prior to World War II, and going back for millennia, most development was not of the large-scale, master-planned variety. Rather, most cities and neighborhoods were built lot-by-lot, by dozens or hundreds of land owners and  developers. Even when the street and lot pattern was laid out all at once by a city (as in New York's grid of 1811) or a railroad company, the lots were auctioned off to individual parties who carry out the task of building on their own, one by one. In such urban settings, the development of the place is never complete, and many lots will be developed and redeveloped over the years to meet the changing needs of their owners and the market as I discussed in a previous post called Small Lots and the Evolution of the City. Some have referred to this kind of development as Incremental Urbanism. I like that term, and will use it on this blog.

Friday, September 20, 2013

To Connect or Not to Connect?


Perhaps it is a natural territorial instinct to wall ourselves into a protected enclave. Much has been written about the late 20th Century phenomenon of gated developments, but that isn't the only time we block access in our neighborhoods. The lollipop cul-de-sac street patterns of many American suburbs are also meant to block; and sometimes older neighborhoods are retrofitted to block auto access, pedestrian access, or both.

As a planner, I see this a lot, but I recently saw it in action in my own neighborhood. I live in an older neighborhood that, for the most part, has a walkable street grid. Slicing diagonally  through the neighborhood is a major piece of underground infrastructure. On the surface, some of this land is occupied by parks, some by parking lots, some is incorporated into adjacent private yards (with the caveat that no structures may be constructed over it), and some is vacant and unimproved. Part of it near me was a park, which was ripped out a while ago when the underground infrastructure was upgraded. 

Our Parks and Recreation Department held a couple of neighborhood meetings to work on a new design for the reconstruction of this park. This all went very well, and the new park is going to be great, but something really stood out to me. The infrastructure corridor continues past the park through a very long block, providing the potential for a direct pedestrian connection to a major street with some great amenities (including one of the best pizza joints in town). Some of us asked for this stretch, which is presently fenced off, to be opened up. Many people in the area have actively fought this connection, though, and it will not be opened.


Why We Block

Why is this done? In a society that is so obsessed with connectedness of the digital variety, why are some of us shunning connectedness in our cities? I have encountered three primary reasons, all of which are rooted in fear.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Major Streets

(Source: Urban Advantage)
Major streets are usually terrible places. Who wants to stroll along a street like the one above? I certainly don't. Streets like that are noisy, uncomfortable, dangerous-feeling, and uninteresting. 

Although this kind of street is a staple of the suburbs, most suburbanites and suburban planners aren't crazy about them. Despite the extreme auto-dependence of the suburbs, suburbanites dislike the noise, fumes, and danger of major roadways that, by necessity, must carry so many cars. Who can blame them? Their usual response is to hide from the monster that they created. They often turn the adjacent development's backside toward the street (creating a terrible tunnel effect) or set buildings back far away from the roadway (creating dispiriting voids).

The Tunnel. Despite the landscaping, this is not a nice place. At all.
(Source: Google Earth)
Urbanists also rightfully despise such streets. They prefer streets like the one below. This is the dream, right? This is the kind of street where I'd like to hang out. In fact, I have hung out there, and it was great. It was peaceful, comfortable, safe-feeling, and interesting. When urban planners and designers try to create a great street, we usually have something like this in mind.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lessons from Arlington, Virginia

Arlington, Virginia
(All images are from the film Arlington's Smart Growth Journey)

I recently watched a great documentary on YouTube (which is embedded at the end of this post) called Arlington's Smart Growth Journey. This hour-long documentary, produced in 2009, chronicles the transformation of Arlington, Virginia into a model of effective urban planning and a model for maintaining a high quality of life in the face of tremendous growth and change.

Arlington is across the Potomac River from from Washington, DC. In the 1960s they were a suburban community that found themselves in the path of proposed freeways, a proposed commuter rail line, and a lot of anticipated growth. Rather than fight change, they shaped it and controlled it, and used it to improve their community. They were really ahead of their time. They were practicing smart growth and transit-oriented development before those terms even existed.