American cities are fighting a major problem in recent months, which is an increase in traffic congestion. The worst cities, of course, are L.A., New York, Chicago, D.C., and Dallas, but most other large cities are seeing similar problems. According to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, U.S. drivers drove 21 billion more miles in 2010 than in 2009, a significant increase despite the economic recession. The problem is only expected to worsen as the economy picks up and jobs increase. The average American driver logs 25 miles per day, and now pays just short of $4 per gallon of gas (28% higher than a year ago). This problem is presenting significant financial hardship on millions of families nationwide.
One major solution comes in the form of well-developed transit systems. According to CEOs for Cities, motorists in compactly developed cities that have extensive transit systems can drive nearly 50% less. The key factor is whether residents have to drive everywhere, or whether they have other options.
Edward McMahon, an expert on sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, D.C., speaks to a study undertaken in 2009 on the relationship between urban design and driving. “Most trips in a car are not back and forth to work,” he says. “Most trips — 80% to 85% — are lifestyle trips to the movies, the grocery store, taking the kids to school, and so on. What we found is if you live in a community where you can walk, ride a bike, take a short trip, those savings start to add up really quickly.”
Cities where people drive less tend to do well in three essential areas: land use, urban design, and transportation. In downtown Mesa, the city is working hard to enhance all three of these areas through the new light rail transit system, opportunities and zoning for mixed-use developments, and intentional, citizen-friendly street layouts.
Ideally, the improvements over the next five years will allow Mesa residents to realize a significant savings in gas expenditures–and will ease the stress of congestion so many other cities are fighting.
As you’re no-doubt seeing–and hopefully excited about, Mesa is bucking the national trend of sagging economies and bringing citizens some notable activity that could spell big growth in the city. We’ve already talked about the potential of the Light Rail to Mesa (to be completed in 2015) on business, but now it seems that some nebulous zoning requirements have been replaced with what many see as the more helpful form-based codes. Form-based codes foster predictable building results and a high-quality public realm by using the yardstick of physical form, rather than separation of uses, as the organizing principle for the code. The codes are actually regulations, not mere guidelines, adopted into city law. Mesa’s form-based codes offer a powerful alternative to conventional zoning and could pave the way for a more thoughtful and deliberate plan for the city.
For example, form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations in the new codes are presented in words, clearly-drawn diagrams, and other visuals. They are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, character) of development, rather than only distinctions in land-use types.
This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters (e.g., FAR, dwellings per acre, setbacks, parking ratios, traffic LOS), to the neglect of an integrated built form. Form-based codes, on the other hand, are drafted to implement a community plan–a unified vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. It is our hope–and the hope of business–that Mesa’s adoption of a form-based code with a Central Main Street Area Plan will provide property owners and developers more freedom to develop future-minded property along the existing and future light rail line.
With crude oil prices wavering wildly in a jittery market, the trickle-down effect is that Americans are suddenly nervous wrecks about everything energy-related. Both oil and coal-based electrical energy is falling out of favor in many circles. The “drill baby, drill” people are quickly trying to pass legislation that would tap into domestic resources for home-grown oil, while environmentalists are madly pointing people to alternative sources of energy. One such discussion centers on the use of solar panels for home energy. Solar panels, which are made of arrays of photovoltaic cells, use the renewable energy from the sun to provide a clean and environmentally sound means of collecting solar energy.
In recent months, chains including Wal-Mart Stores, Kohl’s, Safeway and Whole Foods Market have installed solar panels on roofs of their stores to generate electricity on a large scale. Over the long run, assuming Congress renews a favorable tax provision and more states offer incentives, the chains promise a solar construction program that would ultimately put panels atop almost every big store in the country. The trend is accelerating as the chains seize a chance to bolster their environmental credentials by cutting back on their use of electricity from coal.
The costs for solar energy are still under debate, however, coal generation costs about 6 cents for a kilowatt hour, which is enough electricity to run a hair dryer for an hour. Natural gas generation costs about 9 cents a kilowatt hour, said Reese Tisdale, a senior analyst with the consulting firm Emerging Energy Research. In comparison, “best case” for power from solar panels is about 25 to 30 cents a kilowatt hour, he said. But retailers believe that they can achieve economies of scale. With coal and electricity prices rising, they are also betting that solar power will become more competitive, especially if new policies addressing global warming limit the emissions from coal plants. “Solar has become part of the kit that we think about when we open a store,” said Sharon Im-Lee, REI’s energy manager.
In the spirit of keeping solar power competitive, incentive and rebate programs will need to continue in order to demonstrate the value of the technology and their applications. As production techniques improve and more distribution points are established the cost of the systems will continue to decrease. Coupled with increasing energy costs, the systems will become competitive and sustainable. Saemisch & Di Bella Architects continue to research and learn emerging technologies with the goal of promoting a
whole-building approach to sustainable design by recognizing performance in water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.
As you may have heard, the Light Rail that has connected downtown Tempe to downtown Phoenix will now be extended into Mesa. Much of the funding for the project has been apportioned by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), with the design phase having begun in September 2010 and completion estimated for 2016.
As details of the project continue to emerge, citizens both for and against the project have voiced strong opinions. The “anti-rail” people voice concern about taxpayers who may have to pick up too much of the cost of the project. Many would prefer that the funds be applied elsewhere, especially when cuts to other governmentally-funded organizations like Medicaid and Medicare have been so dire in recent months.
On the other hand, businesses appear generally excited about the Light Rail. Because it connects to Sky Harbor International Airport, they reason, it will help tourists get around more easily, and it will attract business conventions to the area. According to a recent METRA survey, rail riders have significantly higher incomes than bus-riders ($76K vs. $14K) and thus bring far greater revenue –and class, according to some–into an area.
With the Light Rail coming to Mesa, businesses hope there will be opportunity for renewed investment and development in the downtown area, which is ideally suited for mixed-use type of projects (i.e., a combination of retail, office and residential). This is a trend modeled elsewhere in the valley and other metro areas throughout the country.
Obviously there will be growing pains during the construction process–including the added messiness to an already congested downtown area, but the end result, some say, will far overshadow the irritations. The hope is that the area will realize higher property values, a more dynamic downtown and therefore higher visibility for businesses, and increased development opportunities.
On that note, we at Saemisch & Di Bella are intrigued by the Light Rail opportunity and hope to lend our rich portfolio of experience to all who may be interested in this or any other type of urban architectural project.
With the tragedy of Tucson on so many people’s minds, one of the main topics of debate has been about mental illness. Mental illness takes many forms just as physical illnesses do. However, mental illness is still feared and misunderstood; and unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to it. We might ask, “Isn’t there anything being done to change this stereotype of those with mental illness and of the facilities that serve those with mental illness?”
Fortunately the answer is yes, and you might be surprised to learn that the innovative ideas about the care of those with mental illness come from an architecture firm and their non-profit partners. Working in collaboration with each other, we combine our knowledge of health and wellness with design expertise and both of our visions for a new and innovative facility that would serve both those in need of medical help-including mental health issues- plus providing support for a variety of family needs.
Examples of these projects include the following:
• Mountain Health and Wellness is a 30,000 square feet headquarters which is a medical clinic, a mental health provider, and a pharmacy.
• Partners in Recovery have 15,000 square feet which is an adaptive reuse of an existing CVS facility. Now it is a state provider of mental health services and a psychiatric hospital.
• Recovery Innovations is a 17,000 building remodel and addition. It is a state provider of mental health services and a psychiatric hospital.
• The Village at Oasis Park includes two 14-unit residential buildings for a total of 28 residences. These will house developmentally and physically-challenged individuals. The next phase is for 1 or 2 residential buildings for low income seniors. Each building will house 20 people. Finally, the last phase will be a 5th building that will be a community services building to support the residents. This project was developed by the Marc Center of Mesa.
• Child Crisis Center shelter and Family Resource Center is a remodel of an existing shelter and a new 21,000 square feet family resource center.
These non-profit projects are just one phase of what we do, but they say a great deal about our firm and its philosophy. It is important to us that our endeavors have both a meaningful aesthetic design, but it is also important that our projects make a social impact on communities throughout Arizona. Perhaps the above facilities will make a difference for Arizona as residents realize there are answers for them in dealing with mental health issues, other medical needs, and family support resources. The stereotype has been broken, and a new vision has been put in place.
If you said swimming, you would be correct! The unusual thing about swimming is that it is a sport that is great for everyone and for all ages. This time of year when we are especially thinking about changing our habits to include better eating choices and to put exercise into our daily routine, swimming may be the sport that is right for you.
Besides being great exercise, swimming also offers other benefits. If you are hoping to improve your flexibility, or if you have asthma, perhaps you are overweight, maybe you have suffered other athletic injuries, or you want to increase your cardiovascular conditioning or lower blood pressure; swimming is a way to repair many of these conditions. In addition, swimming does not stress your joints; and your muscle strength and endurance can also be made better.
Arizona is a state with incredible year-round weather filled mostly with sunny days. The opportunity to swim presents itself to many citizens either with the use of a private or public pool. Unfortunately because of the number of pools in the state, the number of accidental drownings averages nearly 90 per year. The largest number of these deaths occurs in children 1 thru 4 years of age. For this reason, water safety needs to be a priority for the people of this state.
Skyline Aquatic Center in the city of Mesa is a beautiful example of a facility that we had the opportunity to design which will provide a place where both recreational and competitive swimming will be available; and lessons to learn to swim for all ages will also be obtainable. Remember swimming is a form of exercise to get you in shape or to help you stay in shape. Make this year the year for everyone in your family to learn the basic skills of swimming. To help you do this, check out this innovative project coming soon in Mesa. You will be inspired to become involved.
“If Saemisch and DiBella had a Fan Club, Child Crisis Center would be President! Our partnership goes back decades and has been invaluable to the growth of the agency and its services. Our buildings are unique, functional and most important, welcoming to all the kids and families who enter them. Our community is fortunate to have businesses like Saemisch and DiBella who care about its families”
“CCC is known for its unique, functional and welcoming buildings for all the services which we provide to kids and families who reach out to us. Saemisch and DiBella listened to our needs and created the environments we envisioned Their partnership has been invaluable to not only CCC but to many non-profits as we work together to make our community a great place for families.”
Christine Scarpati, M.S.
Chief Executive Officer
Child Crisis Center
P.O. Box 4114
817 N. Country Club
Mesa, Arizona 85201
“We have had the pleasure of working with Saemisch and Di Bella on several projects over the years. The personal attention and professionalism resulted in beautiful yet practical space. With each project, Vince has been unrelenting in his pursuit to ensure that we end up with a building that works best for the children and families we serve. And the projects have far exceeded our expectations.”