CNUdc Interview Series: Stuart Sirota, AICP
In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.
How did you get involved in new urbanism?
During the 90s I worked as a transit planner for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). MTA is an arm of the Maryland Department of Transportation and operates bus, light rail, and Metro service in Baltimore as well as the MARC train service throughout the DC- Baltimore region. Around 1996, a colleague who relocated from Portland, Oregon to work for MTA started telling me about the innovative planning that Portland was doing and about the New Urbanism and smart growth movements. Maryland’s own Smart Growth program was just getting underway at this time as well, and part of MTA’s mission became implementing smart growth policies. I became increasingly intrigued by these reform ideas, because I had also found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the planning profession and questioning its value to society. Then, about a year later, the same colleague who introduced me to New Urbanism organized a smart growth conference in Baltimore, and arranged to have James Howard Kunstler, the leading critic of sprawl and author of The Geography of Nowhere, as the conference keynote speaker. It was during this conference, while listening to Kunstler’s speech to a packed ballroom at the Baltimore Convention Center, that I had a “lightning bolt moment.” My jaw dropped as I heard someone for the first time brilliantly and irreverently articulate how and why the planning profession was part of the problem, and what could be done to fix it. Many things became clear to me at that moment, and I’ve never looked at the world the same way since.
From that point forward, I dedicated myself to using my skills and experience as a planner to become an agent for change and make a positive impact on the built environment and the planning profession. I realized that, at the MTA, I could influence how transit could be planned differently to become a travel mode of choice and a tool for community revitalization. Even prior to this, I had developed an interest in the intersection between transportation and land use planning, but learning about New Urbanism finally gave me the tools to apply these ideas to my everyday work, and to become more of a generalist. At my job, I began focusing on transit oriented development (TOD) and started participating in the CNU and Pro-Urb listservs which introduced me to many influential people within the movement. This led me to begin attending the annual CNU conferences and other New Urbanist events, which helped form many of the associations I have today.
Where did your career go from there?
After my epiphany about New Urbanism, I left MTA to join Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the oldest and best regarded transportation infrastructure consulting firms in the world. While there, I became a professional associate and project manager, gaining valuable skills in managing complex planning studies. I was also instrumental in establishing a local land use practice with emphasis on TOD planning. At the same time, I continued building a strong network of associates within CNU. During this time, I became a Knight Fellow in Community Building through the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, in 2003-04. This mid-career fellowship was another life-changing experience that provided an immersive environment to explore New Urbanism with the leaders of the movement. My experiences as a Knight Fellow inspired me to establish my own consulting practice, TND Planning Group, in 2005 to focus on advancing New Urbanism and placemaking full time through planning and revitalization of traditional neighborhoods, with particular emphasis on the integration of sustainable transportation and land use. Now I routinely collaborate with other new urbanist practitioners around the country and in my local market of the Baltimore-Washington region and the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some really interesting corridor and “suburban retrofit” planning efforts in the DC area in recent years including in Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Clarksburg, and Ashton.
Tell me about EnvisionBaltimore.
EnvisionBaltimore is an advocacy and informational network that I started at about the same time I established my consulting practice. I felt it was important to provide a platform in the Baltimore region for increasing awareness of and support for the principles of New Urbanism. At that time, I found that the prevailing attitude toward New Urbanism among Baltimore’s planning and design community ranged from unfamiliar to hostile. Even today, there seems to be a persistent bias against the term New Urbanism among many colleagues in Baltimore who can’t seem to get past the “neo-traditional” stereotyping that says that New Urbanism is about nostalgic architecture and porches. However, it’s really become a non-issue with the emergence of acceptable phrases like “Sustainable Communities,” “Complete Streets,” and “Suburban Retrofits” - which are essentially synonymous with the core principles of New Urbanism. Frankly, I don’t care what label is put on it as long as the principles are being embraced, which they increasingly are.
So, in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas and information, I first set up an internet listserv, modeled on the Pro-Urb listserv, to provide an easy way for practitioners and advocates to share ideas about how to make Baltimore a more vibrant, livable place through sustainable transportation and land use practices. It quickly grew to over 300 subscribers. In addition to the listserv, I’ve expanded EnvisionBaltimore to include periodic lectures, workshops, networking events, a weekly e-newsletter, Facebook page, and blog all under the EnvisionBaltimore banner. For example, in 2010, I brought Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms.org to Baltimore for a screening and discussion event. Nearly 100 people attended. In April 2011, I organized and led a half-day workshop in conjunction with Baltimore Green Week called “Life in the 20-Minute Neighborhood,” held at the American Visionary Art Museum. The workshop featured short presentations and a visioning exercise about ways to make Baltimore more of a network of walkable neighborhoods connected by efficient transit and bicycling. Over 70 people registered for the free workshop, and many good ideas were generated.
Until now, there has been no real funding stream to finance EnvisionBaltimore. EnvisionBaltimore has mostly been a labor of love - and help from my interns and a few key partners - and a way of showing leadership on a topic I think is of the utmost importance. It’s clear to me that there’s an emerging generation and culture in Baltimore that is eager to connect with ideas about sustainable urban living that is built around walkable neighborhoods, good transit, and cycling. I hope to continue providing that through EnvisionBaltimore and see it expand further.
What are you working on now?
I have several projects focused on Baltimore including work on a Complete Streets plan for a large part of southeast Baltimore City that includes Fells Point, Highlandtown, Greektown, and Canton; I’m also consulting on station area planning for the planned Red Line light rail; and I’m about to begin working on a complete streets streetscape design around several transit stops in Baltimore.
Outside of Baltimore, I’m working with another firm on a form-based code for downtown Cambridge, Maryland on the Eastern Shore. In Charles County in Southern Maryland, I’m leading the development of a master plan and feasibility study for Port Tobacco, one of the oldest settlements in Maryland that was an important port in the 17th and 18th centuries. The county is interested in focusing efforts on restoring elements of the village and the potential for adaptive reuse of several historic structures. We’re also exploring creating a bicycle and pedestrian network to connect Port Tobacco to other nearby historic sites and to urbanized parts of the county. I’m also collaborating with others in Shepherdstown, West Virginia to find solutions for integrating a proposed commercial center into the adjacent historic downtown.
What do you think of the work being done in DC right now?
I’ve been impressed by recent efforts in the District of Columbia and surrounding jurisdictions. The DC Office of Planning has become very progressive under Harriet Tregoning’s leadership, and the DC Department of Transportation has become a national leader in implementing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and planning a streetcar renaissance. Last year, I worked with Nelson Nygaard on a study for DCOP to identify TOD potential around dozens of Metro stations and priority bus corridors throughout the District. I’ve also been impressed by the quality of infill development and mixed use projects in DC such as Columbia Heights and countless other individual projects.
Arlington continues to be a leader in progressive planning, and it’s gratifying to see Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties both working in earnest to reform their land use policies and plans in ways that foster walkability and TOD. As a former resident of Hyattsville, I am especially thrilled to see the Arts District mixed use development along U.S. 1 continue to expand as a model of commercial corridor and town center revitalization.
All of that said, there’s no denying that there are still significant challenges in Baltimore and DC, particularly in changing the way that our metropolitan planning organizations do their long range transportation plans. The lion’s share of transportation dollars still go to sprawl-inducing highway projects that just lead to more driving and congestion, while at the same time leaving less available for sustainable transportation initiatives that could benefit their respective regions.
The DC region does have an excellent advocacy network. The efforts of organizations like the Coalition for Smarter Growth, CNU DC, Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicycling Association, the website Greater Greater Washington, and others have become essential to helping keep short-sighted policy decisions in check. I think now is the time for these organizations to do even more to educate the public, which I believe is the key to overcoming resistance to change and influencing policy.