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Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Does Anybody Believe a Word These Guys are Saying?

‘When a company approaches me, I first analyze its DNA then determine how I can introduce some of my own genes.’ … Arik Levy leaves plenty of room for more intuitive methods of data gathering. In a recent collaboration with Baccarat, he not only studied every department of the 300 year old firm…he also insisted on sleeping at the ancient ‘chateau’ facility in the town from which the company took its name, enlisting his subconscious in the fact-finding mission.

This month’s Surface magazine offers an amazing collection of this type of pretentious spew. Mr. Levy was far from the only offender. Referring to Sean Lally, we’re told, “Softpace…calls for an architecture of variable qualities rather than geometries, where atmosphere can be consciously and physically experienced.” Not to be outdone, artist Cai Guo-Qiang tells Surface that his work “usually encompasses Chinese philosophy and politics. Symbols, narratives, traditions, including feng shui and herbal medicine, often inspire the artist’s explosive works, which he developed an interest in while exploring the interaction of gunpowder and paper.” We’re also treated to a fawning review of a hotel by Frank Gehry that looks awfully similar to Bilbao Guggenheim (or was that the Disney concert hall or the band shell in Chicago – it’s hard to keep track of how many times he’s been able to recycle the same basic design without anybody going “Hey, wait a minute”).

The readers are even getting in on the fun. A letter to the editor writer informs us of last month’s issue, “There was something quite lyrical going on – a sense of understatement and narrative from beginning to end – which gave everything added elegance and consistency which seems to be anathema in the world of fashion.”

I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh. After all, I read Surface. And I do like modernism in many of its forms. I’ve been an advocate for hiring modern architects for buildings, and I even like a lot of Arik Levy’s collection for Baccarat – though I don’t believe a word of his story of how he was inspired to create it. But things are clearly getting out of hand. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in his magnificent essays The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, basically all of this is a type of intellectual warfare, where an endless cycle of ever more pretentious theories drive what’s hot and what’s not. The only way to stay ahead of the crowd and be the person of the moment is to have an even more pretentious theory (or story of inspiration, or whatever) than everyone else. At some point the question becomes, how much more pretentious can you get? Then you’ve got to get back to basics and start the cycle all over again.

So you heard it here first. I think we are starting to get into the death throes of the current cycle of modernism. Not that we’re over by a long shot. But trends are over long before they are over, if you know what I mean. Part of it is evidenced by the fact that even a great many of the top names in the game can’t even be bothered to come up with something original. They’re just cranking out more of the same. I mentioned Gehry earlier. Even Chicago got sucked in by him. As they did by Calatrava, who designed a larger scale derivative of his Twisting Torso building for a lake front high rise.

The Bilbao Guggenheim shows everything that is wrong with the starchitect trend. Now I supposed I can’t criticize it too much. It’s far from the worst offender here, but it was the one that really hatched this idea that any old random town could grab attention for itself by commissioning a building by a super-famous architect, whose structure would validate the place and turn it into a tourist attraction. In fact, it’s a double-whammy here. It’s both a starchitect building and a franchise of the famed Guggenheim Museum. It also is an exhibition of the trend of structures that, while they may in and of themselves look cool, are pretty contextless in that they draw much more on the oeuvre of the architect in question than on the locality or site in which the building happens to be located. It goes without question that the building is loud and in your face. It’s a monument to the self-indulgence of the architect, not to Bilbao. Cities around the world are lapping it up. But just like Starbucks, one day cities are going to wake up and say, wait a minute. Everbody’s got a bunch of these things.

When we look back at the structures of classical Greece and Rome, we associate view them as expressions of the societies that created them. When anybody looks down on one of these could-be-anywhere buildings a thousand years from now, what will they see them as? I’d say it is likely going to be seen as the product of some transnational elite, rather than the product of any given city or society. (Or perhaps as a sign that the cities in question lost their self-confidence and internal creative force).

Dare I even ask how much money, much of it no doubt courtesy of the taxpayers, these architects are raking in? I suspect it is a scandalous amount.

So I tell those up and coming places that I cover, don’t be a fashion victim! Yes, you should demand high quality architecture, not extruded product produced by some politically connected local good-ol’-boy. But don’t just fall for the pretentiousness of the Surface crowd either. Instead, look at the best – and the worst – that is being done around the world, and make sure that what is produced in your town, regardless of where it comes from, measures up. That, at a minimum, requires that the work product show sensitivity to its surroundings and also that it reflects the character of the city at least as much as it does the character of the designer.

I believe there’s a huge opportunity for a city out there that will pair a willingness to hire the world’s great architects, artists and designers, with a demand that those people design something that is more than just peripherally connected to the place where it is to be located. It usually takes two parties to create a great product, building, whatever: a great designer and a great client. No one should feel obligated to hand over the keys – and their wallet – to some fancypants architect in order to have the international elite seal of approval put on their town.

I realize this was kind of a rambling rant, but hey, it’s a blog after all.

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Topics: Architecture and Design

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

The Indiana Commerce Connector and Illiana Expressway Aftermath

Have you ever wondered by some places boom and other places stagnate? What makes one place hot, the next not? Sometimes it seems rather arbitrary. Consider the collar counties of Indianapolis. Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson, Boone, and Hancock are all booming areas. Distribution and other industries set up shop in shiny new industrial parks alone the interstates radiating out from I-465. Housing and retail developments spout. Etc.

But conspicuously not in the growth picture are Shelby County, and to a lesser extent Morgan County. Shelby County is the clear anomaly here. It is located in a growing metro region but has a profile much closer to a traditional stagnant rural county. Little industry has located there. This despite having the best interstate access of any of the collar counties. I-74 cuts through the length of the county diagonally and there are seven interchanges in Shelby County. There is also an I-65 interchange in southwestern Shelby County. Yet there has been little development. One thing Gov. Daniels failed to do in trying to sell his Indiana Commerce Connector plan was to explain why if the existing interstate wasn’t doing anything for Shelby County, another one would.

People talk about infrastructure as a catalyst for growth. And indeed it is a necessary factor. But not a sufficient one. Obviously something is lacking in Shelby County. What could it be? One thing I can’t help but notice is that Shelby County was a hotbed of anti-ICC activism. A capacity crowd of 1,500 attended a recent meeting on the road – a huge turnout in a county with only 44,000 people in it. Morgan County was the site of other huge rallies against the road.

It occurs to me that perhaps the reason Shelby County hasn’t seen economic development is simply that the people of the county don’t want it. Their values and opinions are not consistent with economic growth. That sounds like a put-down, but it isn’t. Growth isn’t necessarily progress. A preference for growth and change are merely values that people hold. There is nothing inherently right about them. As Americans we typically see these as positives, but that’s pretty much a matter of opinion.

The challenge is to reconcile a desire for things not to change with a desire for the good things in life, such as access to modern technology, and good jobs for your children. A friend of mine recently went to a corporate brainstorming session on how to improve employee loyalty. The top three items that the group agreed needed attention were pay, work-life balance, and advancement opportunities. My friend and I had a good laugh at that. When someone invents a high paying job with lots of upside where you don’t have to work very hard, send me an application. Similarly, people in vast tracts of Indiana expect to be able to maintain their traditional way of life, but still have the modern economy, the government, etc. to treat them to all the good things of today. But it just doesn’t work that way. There are always tradeoffs. And what that has meant in anti-change Indiana is a state where a good chunk of the real estate is bleeding population and jobs. Farmers don’t want anyone messing with their land – or their gigantic subsidies paid for by urbanites of course – and expect that they can just make the whole world stop to match their way of life.

The citizens of Shelby County are free to reject the Indiana Commerce Connector. It is their choice. And indeed they’ve made it. But they need to understand that other people can make choices too. And those choices often involve locating businesses in more progressive communities, moving factories to China, or just plain leaving town for good after high school graduation. There’s a price to be paid for maintaining these traditional ways. The people of Shelby County might find that price worth paying, but I hope they are making these decisions with their eyes open.

As an Urbanophile perhaps it is easy to lecture rural people. I should point out that I grew up in a rural area, on a country road four miles outside a town of 29 people. I still love the country. And I should also point out that the same is true of cities too. I asked why Birmingham stagnated while Atlanta became the capital of the New South. It similarly comes down to choices people make. A lot of the cities I cover here talk a good game of wanting to be world class. But all too often their decision making doesn’t line up with that lofty rhetoric. There are tradeoffs in cities just like in rural areas. When the vast bulk of what these cities do isn’t in fact world class, then they can’t expect that the sum product at the end will be world class. It is that simple.

Atlanta is a case in point. It’s easy to say, well, Atlanta was in the south and centrally located. Their emergence as a major city was as much good fortune as anything. Part of that is true. But Wall Street is always able to spin a plausible tale about why the market did what it did that day which made it sound inevitable too. But we all know predicting that market in advance is a much harder affair.

The brass ring is still there to be grabbed. There is room to be had in the club of major cities. Any of the cities I cover here has the potential to stand up and be counted among their number. No, none of these cities will be a Boston or LA. But they could find their own type of greatness, just as Atlanta has. To do it those requires making those tradeoffs. Lots of people think Atlanta, with its notorious, though over-rated, gridlock, is the ultimate horror show of out of control sprawl. But that’s one of the tradeoffs they had to make to get where they wanted to go. To think that any city can get there without some pain and sacrifice is not realistic. These cities might decide, like Shelby County, that it’s a price they aren’t willing to pay. That’s ok. But these decisions should be made consciously, not be default, with an awareness of what is being decided. Unfortunately, that seldom seems to be the case.

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Birmingham at a Crossroads

There’s an interesting thread over at skyscrapercity.com that discusses a recent Birmingham News series called Birmingham at a Crossroads. It’s a sobering assessment. Located in the high growth South, you’d think Birmingham would have been primed to be one of America’s faster growing metropolises. But racial tension and political infighting have really dragged the city down.

It would be interesting to do some study comparing some of these southern metros to see how they took different paths. It strikes me on the surface that you can use the matter of race as a proxy to see the difference. Atlanta, even in the immediate Civil War period, was home to many black leaders, educational institutions, etc. and today is both a center of black culture in America and its fastest growing metro area. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these are together. Birmingham, on the other hand, conjures up quite a different image. I argue elsewhere that of these smaller metro areas, the one that really starts taking its black community seriously is going to gain a huge competitive advantage.

Of course, Birmingham is in many ways a Rust Belt city that just happens to be in the South. A gigantic statue of Vulcan (incidentially, the largest cast iron statue in the world) towers over the city, a symbol of Birmingham’s steel making past. It doesn’t get much more Rust Belt than that. Yes indeed, there’s a reason this city was named Birmingham. Perhaps this shows that the problem with the Midwest Rust Belt is actually the declining industrial heritage, not climate, flat geography, and no coastline.

I’ve only been to Birmingham once. It seemed like an ok city to me, not much different from many similar sized Midwestern metros. There were upscale residential districts, cool urban areas, restaurant districts, etc. in addition to the decay portrayed by the article series. Though I wouldn’t claim to be blown away by it. I’m not familiar enough with the history here to try to draw any firm conclusions, but this article certainly points the way to fertile ground for examination and speculation.

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

Welcome to the (Next) Boomtown

An interesting article caught my eye last week about a proposed new development in Sheridan, Indiana that would bring 1,500 new homes there. This on top of the 600 homes being built by starter home developer CP Morgan. Hamilton County is one of the fastest growing in the nation, but Sheridan, located in the northwest part of the county, was too remote to have seen much of this and remained a sleepy, traditional Indiana small town of about 2,600 people. It was probably best known as the home of the Red Onion, which is famous for having one of Indiana’s, and thus one of the world’s, best breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches. These new developments have the potential to double the population of the town. Development attracts development, so presumably more will be on the way. To start to get a handle on this growth, the town has established an architectural review committee.

This set my mind to thinking about which places in the Indianapolis area might end up as the next Fishers. That is, a small town that in a short period of time is transformed into a large suburban community and commercial center. Here are my thoughts on a few of the surrounding towns.

Sheridan (Hamilton County). I might as well start here. Clearly, assuming this new housing development goes forward, the area is primed for growth. Northern Hamilton County suffers compared to other areas because the main north-south route, US 31, is heavily congested. Unless you are commuting to Carmel or Westfield, you’ve got a long drive just to get to the freeway. I believe this lack of good north-south connections will constrain growth everywhere in northern Hamilton County for a while. But, help is on the way in the form of a freeway upgrade that, if things go well, should see US 31 upgraded within 10 or 12 years. Sheridan has great direct connections to US 31 in the form of Sheridan Rd. (SR 38) and 236th St. that should be adequate to handle growth for some time without major upgrades. Land is cheap as well, which attracts the like of CP Morgan. The other thing that attracts these builders is light regulation. Many developers prefer building in unincorporated areas or smaller towns because there are fewer restrictions on what can be built. Westfield is looking to tighten up its standards significantly, which should have developers starting to look elsewhere. To the extent that Sheridan includes things like an architectural review committee, this may constrain growth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Right now Sheridan is looking like an emerging growth story.

Cicero (Hamilton County). Located just north of Noblesville and along the Morse Reservoir, I always thought Cicero was a logical place for growth. It already has about 4,300 people and a quaint Main St., along with, again, the key amenity of the reservoir. However, population has been stagnant here for some time and it suffers from poor north-south access as well. I don’t expect major growth here, or in the other smaller burgs laid out along SR 19, Arcadia and Atlanta.

Whitestown (Boone County). I’ve written a lot about Whitestown in the context of the Boone County annexation battles. This crossroads of 700 people has annexed a huge chunk of land, and is trying to gobble up even more. This includes one of the premier interstate corridors in the region along I-65. Industrial growth is already exploding there. Duke Realty is developing the huge Anson development which could see 10,000 residents within 15 years. So for Whitestown, it’s a matter of how fast, not if, development will occur. This is somewhat surprising to me since Boone County was traditionally one the strongest of the collar counties in trying to preserve its rural character. The problem I guess is that the traditional bastion of this was Zionsville, which simply didn’t grow very much. Whitestown was one exit further out the road, and simply decided to throw growth into high gear. They are one of the few small towns that are explicitly high growth as a matter of policy and which has huge ambitions to become a major player in the region. They are actually benchmarking themselves against Carmel, which should see where the town is aiming. Whitestown faces three main challenges. First, they’ve got to growth the infrastructure of a town from basically nothing. That’s hard. The water utility notoriously has problems. This will constrain things for a whle. Second, the longevity of the current town leadership is in question. The current town council has taken a very aggressive stance towards growth. But as these annexations come online, the council districts will be redrawn and the current council is none too popular with many of the folks they’ve annexed. They could easily be booted out on their ears at the next election. Third, there’s the legal risk around these annexations. If Whitestown loses control of the I-65 corridor to Fayette, this would obviously crimp growth. Regardless of who controls the land, though, development is a reality in this corridor.

Pittsboro (Hendricks County). This town of 2,200 was put on the map when a steel mini-mill was built there. Hendricks County is the second fastest growing county in the state, and Pittsboro is the next exit out from the established suburb of Brownsburg. The population is up 41% since 2000. But still, that’s only 650 people. Whether this town will stay on its current brisk but not insane growth path or explode with subdivisions is unknown.

Bargersville (Johnson County). This town of 2,500 people is south of the Greenwood area. Everything that I’m about to say about this is hearsay since I know little about this town, so take it with a grain of salt. Johnson County seems to take a skeptical eye towards suburban development in unicorporated areas. This is in contrast to other places where developers actually favor county jurisdictions. I hear that Bargersville has one of the most permissible regimes in Johnson County, which is attracting developers, though how much growth will end up there remains to be seen.

Edinburgh (Johnson County). This is the next exit south of Franklin on I-65 in Johnson County. This town of 4,500, best known of an outlet mall by the freeway, hasn’t been growing, but given its prime location, it seems like at least a possibility.

New Palestine (Hancock County). This town has grown to 1,800 people, up 600 or 44% since 2000. It’s high school has one of the top graduation rates in the state. It’s a bit remote from the freeway, but is located along Brookville Rd. (US 52) which connnects to I-465 on the southeast side. Going north-south, Mt. Comfort Rd. connects to I-70. I again don’t know too much about this community, but I’ve been through it before and was very surprised by the high quality, upscale development here. Usually you see lots of starter home communities in these smaller places, but many of the subdivisions out here are are full of 100% brick homes that are nicer than much of what is found in Hamilton County. Lack of freeway access will probably keep this from going crazy in terms of growth, but INDOT has a Major Moves project to widen Brookville Rd. to four lanes all they way out to the town. The challenge is to make sure that the state does a good job on this key gateway corridor. Unfortunately, the previous widening from I-465 to Post Rd. was simply the single worst modern day road project design in the state of Indiana. It is Exhibit A in the Hall of Shame. Most of this road is in the City of Indianapolis, which obviously does not care what the state throws up, so unless things change one should expect a very poor primary gateway into this community.

Cumberland (Marion/Hancock Counties). Cumberland is one of the rare towns that crosses county lines in Indiana. It is mostly in Marion County, where it counts as one of the numerous “included cities” under Unigov. Presumably the Hancock County section is considered a “real” town. This bizarre setup makes Cumberland unique in Indiana. Since no further annexations can occur in Marion County, the future growth of this town, if any, lies to the east. Highway access will continue to be an issue as this town is several miles from the nearest freeway. A forthcoming widening project on Washington St. should greatly relieve traffic congestion headed to I-465 there. This includes a mile long section of extensive streetscaping through Cumberland. The town fought INDOT’s original proposal for a simple high capacity thoroughfare and got the plans changed to a much, much better version, for their section at least. This shows a town whose leaders “get it”. (I also know the planning department there has a steady hand at the tiller). A new I-70 interchange at German Church Rd. has long been on the books, but no firm plans exist yet. This would really open up access in the area. The town currently has about 5,300 people.

McCordsville (Hancock County). This town of 1,300 (according to the most recent Census estimates, though I’ve been told the actual number is closer to 4,500) lies in extreme northwest Hancock County, adjacent to Lawrence in Marion County and Fishers in Hamilton County. The proximity to Fishers and the Geist Reservoir area would suggest this prime to be the “next Fishers”. However, with as with many of these towns, highway access is an issue. A project that launches this year will finish the rebuild of Pendleton Pike connecting McCordsville to I-465 as a four to six lane road. And Hamilton County continues to work at widening Olio Rd. to four lanes, which provides a direct route to I-69. (Olio Rd. becomes Mt. Comfort Rd. in Hancock County and is part of the loosely cooridated surface outer belt highway along with Olio, 146th St., and the Ronald Reagan Parkway). Still, this is by no means a freeway town. The busy Conrail main line cuts the town in two as well. Also, like Whitestown, it lacks a critical mass of town infrastructure to support heavy growth, which will constrain things. Still, the comprehensive plan envisions a town buildout of 35,000 people and there seems to be a pretty pro-growth attitude.

Fortville (Hancock County). Fortville is the next town out Pendleton Pike. At 3,600 people it is has a critical town mass. However, it suffers from even worse freeway connectivity, relying on two-lane SR 238 and SR 13 to connect to I-69 a good 10 to 15 miles out from I-465. It also has the Conrail problem. What’s more, it is constrained to the north by Madison County line. In order to annex territory into Madison County, the county commissioners would need to give permission, and this has been pretty rare in Indiana.

SR 13/I-69 (Madison County). I don’t even put a town name here since the area is unincorporated. This is the first exit beyone Fishers in Madison County. Fortville is a few miles south and Lapel is a few miles north. A town of 1,400 called Ingalls lies to the east a bit. At some point, Lapel might conceivably annex the area north of the exit some day. Ingalls is a likely bet to annex the south of the exit at some point. This isn’t so much the next Fishers as just an extension of Fishers into another county. There are a already subdivisions going in up and down SR 13, and Madison County would eventually like to see that road turned into a four-lane boulevard like 146th St. Conceivably, Fishers itself could seek to annex land in this area, though again, that would require the Madison County Commissioners permission. What’s more, Fishers would have to want to annex it. Fishers has impact fees, design standards, etc. to try to make their residential development affordable in the long run. They are probably a great example of how to put things in place to cope with rampant suburban growth. Again, developers sometimes don’t like this, so cross into a neighboring jurisdiction to build things that wouldn’t get approved in Fishers. So the SR 13 developments many not be something Fishers even wants, and no doubt annexation would be fought tooth and nail anyway. I predict Fishers will be more than content to stop at the border. Eventually some sort of municipal services need to be brought to the development near this interchange, which is primed to be a huge development site in coming years.

Other than Whitestown, which already has thousands of approved lots, none of these seems like a sure bet to have truly explosive growth. But any of them could hockey-stick upwards. If history shows anything, it is that it’s difficult to predict the future. The next boomtown could be someplace I haven’t even mentioned. But these are the places I recommend keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Stopping the Brain Drain (?)

Economist Morton Marcus, retired director of the Indiana Business Research Center which, among other things, creates population estimates and projections for Indiana, made an interesting speech recently at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

I don’t agree with everything Marcus says in his speech, but this blurb from the media coverage of it really caught my eye:

Marcus further noted that he is not concerned about a so-called “brain drain” from the Hoosier state, calling attempts to keep Indiana’s kids in the state a mistake. It is better to encourage young people to leave the state and attract new people from other areas to move here, he said. “We have an inadequacy of brain-inflow,” not a brain drain, Marcus said. “Too many people in Indiana have not seen the rest of the world.”

This is right on I think. It’s not that I think that cities should try to get rid of their young college grads, but having cities full of people who’ve never lived anywhere else breeds an insular attitude. It also makes it extremely difficult to change and break out of existing molds. When you don’t know what other people are doing, it’s hard to judge if you are doing well or not. And of course people as well as cities benefit from new and different experiences. Now I’ll be the first to admit that’s really a value statement, but it’s a value I’m glad to promote.

The other side of this around brain-inflow is also key. Places like San Francisco didn’t become hotbeds of skilled technical people by retaining their kids. They did it by hoovering up educated people from elsewhere. As I argue elsewhere, all too many of the smaller, aspirational cities I cover here are selling a commodity product that is not likely to appeal to young, ambitious, educated people. This makes attracting those brains from elsewhere difficult.

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Topics: Talent Attraction
Cities: Indianapolis

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

Louisville’s Big Plans

They say make no small plans, because they have no power to fire men’s souls. Louisville’s problem hasn’t so much been a lack of big plans, but a lack of an ability to execute them. A very divided community was seldom ever able to advance the ball, save when a particularly forceful corporate executive put his personal clout and money behind a project.

Today the environment seems much different. With city-county merger complete, political in-fighting in Jefferson County is at a minimum. Mayor for Life Jerry Abramson is back at the helm of the combined entity. The trends in city development now work in favor of Louisville. And for now there’s no real competition from suburban counties. I believe this presents a unique 5-10 year window in which Louisville can really start to get some things accomplished before the growth story in Jefferson County is over.

I’ll talk here about a few of these big plans. Not only are they large in size and in cost, but they also have significant transformational power. For good or for ill, they are going to change the face of the city assuming they cal get done. These are Museum Plaza, the City of Parks initiative, the Ohio River bridges project, and a new downtown arena.

Museum Plaza

I’ve already covered Museum Plaza extensively on this blog, so I won’t go into details here. But this 60 story, 700-ft. mixed use tower is possibly the most significant development anywhere in the Midwest in the last 50 years outside Chicago. Designed by internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhass (of Seattle Library fame), this building not only has a striking design, but it will be by far downtown’s largest building. This isn’t just cutting edge architecture, it’s a project that is going to become the public face of Louisville. Seldom has any city’s dominant building been so avant-garde. This world class structure will bring international attention to Louisville for years to come. It is an absolute home run project.

Local government TIF financing to support the project has been approved. A pending state law change to allow what is in effect the TIF-ing of hotel taxes from the included Westin Hotel appears to be sailing through the legislature despite opposition from local hotel groups. (I like to say that in Indianapolis the leadership of the community invariably supports a proposal, no matter how bad it is, while in Louisville some vocal group will always fight a proposal to the death, no matter how good it is). Private financing is still a question mark, but supposedly the local backers of the project have enough personal funds to make it happen. Construction could begin as early as this fall. Given the lack of private financing details, I can’t give a good estimate on the likelihood of this being constructed, so call it 50/50.

City of Parks

An item I’ve written little to nothing about to date but which deserves a significant amount of press is the City of Parks initiative. LouisvilleJake recently put a nice posting about this on his blog. Louisville has long been known for its network of urban parks, designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park. (My understanding is that contrary to popular local belief, Olmsted himself had nothing to do with Louisville’s parks). I remember spending many an hour enjoying myself at Iroquois Park as a kid.

The problem is that Louisville’s parks hadn’t been expanded in decades. Mostly this was because the old city of Louisville had all of the parks it needed and in the outer county there was a patchwork of dozens of tiny municipalities with no scale to build real parks. Again, merger has allowed the city to address this. As outer Jefferson County fills up with development, the window to acquire significant tracts of vacant land for parks is closing. To take advantage of the time remaining, the city launched the City of Parks initiative.

The master planning for this is not yet completely, but already hundreds of acres of land have been acquired. A lot of this came from donations. There are also plans for network of trails 100 miles long throughout the county, one of the most aggressive such plans anywhere. The combination of private, federal, and local funding makes this both a true community project and what’s more, a very doable one.

When completed, this is going to give Jefferson County one of the best urban parks infrastructure anywhere. I believe it will be clearly better than what I’ve observed in other competitor cities. As this is underway already, the likelihood of it happening in some form is a near certainty. I certainly hope that Louisville garners the national recognition it deserves for this highly ambitious project.

Ohio River Bridges

There has been talk of building another bridge over the Ohio River for nearly 40 years. Louisville is currently served by three bridges: the Sherman Minton Bridge carrying I-64, the Kennedy Bridge carrying I-65, and the old George Rogers Clark Bridge which parallels the Kennedy and is an older bridge carrying mostly local traffic destined for downtown. Louisville has a partially completed outer beltway, I-265, with no links across the river. No one has seriously promoted a western crossing in rural Harrison County, but for years Indiana has wanted to build an eastern linkage across the two sections.

Meanwhile the Kennedy Bridge crossing in downtown began to experience congestion. While the bridge itself is not that big of a problem at the moment, the very poor design of Spaghetti Junction on the Kentucky side of the river is. What’s more, Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, long someone who hated anything not inside the city limits, recoiled with horror at the idea of a new eastern bridge that would allow traffic to bypass downtown. He was opposed to an east end bridge in favor of a new downtown span. Backing him in this were residents of the affluent town of Prospect who would lose their homes for a new bridge.

This standoff continued for years until, in the best tradition of politics, the two sides agreed to “compromise” and build both bridges. Of course, they also had to be built at the same time because of mutual suspicions across the border. Thus what is really two projects became to be defined as one in the eyes of the community. An EIS was conducted, and the Ohio River Bridges Project was born.

The big problem with this project has been cost. The estimates have continued to spiral upwards, and now reach $3.9 billion for the entire project, making it one of the most expensive projects anywhere in the United States. The most expensive portion is the rebuild of Spaghetti Junction, which is $1.7 billion by itself. The two states are dividing the cost using a formula where each side is responsible for those improvements which lie entirely on its side, and the bridges themselves are being split 50/50. This puts Indiana’s share at $1.1 billion and Kentucky’s share at $2.8 billion.

Funding in Indiana was secured as part of the Major Moves program. I’ve long been critical of the high Indiana share of this project, but that’s the subject of a later posting. The key is that Gov. Daniels fully funded it – but based on previous cost estimates. Major Moves only included about $600 million for the bridges – only half of what is needed. This puts a huge gap in the program funding. The Kentucky side is even worse, where to fully fund the project, it would peak at 1/3 of Kentucky’s total transportation budget. In a state where Louisville has never been that popular, that puts a big red question mark on the project. Even the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet realizes it can’t all be funded at once, and so is, to the mayor’s chagrin, proposing to construct the lower cost eastern span first.

Muddying the waters further is a grass roots proposal to radically redo the project. This is the “8664” proposal. The idea being to “86”, that is, tear down, the elevated section of I-64 through downtown and greatly simplify the Spaghetti Junction reconfiguration. The backers goal is to reconnect downtown to the riverfront, open up significant new park land, and remove the unsightly expressway. They have promised this will spur development similar to what has happened with removed freeways in San Francisco, Portland, and Milwaukee. It is an interesting idea, though their comparisons are flawed since all of the other cities they mention tore down spur routes, not major through expressways. Still, a lot of people have signed on to this, and the appeal is growing since it reduces the project cost. The problem is that it puts, per usual, cracks in the facade of civic unity, which could undermine efforts to secure federal funding.

Speaking of federal funding, that was put into even greater jeopardy when five term congressman Ann Northrup was defeated as part of the Democrat takeover of the House. Jim Yarmuth, the new congressman, is a freshman with little clout, plus was long on record as an opponent of the bridges project. He’s backtracked on this a bit, but it seems unlikely he’s the kind of guy who is going to really go to bat for the project.

How this will all play out is yet to be seen. As with all major Louisville projects, there is huge drama surrounding this one. But this project is simply too important to the region to let die. Right now it looks like the east end bridge has the most momentum because it seems the most buildable with current funds and is far less expensive and complicated than the I-65 bridge. What’s more, construction on the Kentucky approach has basically already started.

I strongly suggest looking at ways to utilize toll financing to build the eastern bridge. This would not only free up funds for the downtown bridge, conceivably a concession payment a la the Indiana Toll Road could contribute even more. (The downtown bridge cannot be toll because federal law prohibits converting existing free interstates to toll roads). I have heard that tolls were previously studied and rejected as unworkable. However, I always take these studies with a grain of salt since no doubt no one really wanted to build a toll bridge. I suggest that Gov. Daniels should lead the way on this, just as he is doing with the Indiana Commerce Connector and the Illiana Expressway.

Absent toll financing, it is looking doubtful that that the entire project could be built anytime soon. But it does look like at least an eastern bridge is feasible in the short term.

New Downtown Arena

Ever since John Y. Brown, Jr., later to become Kentucky’s governor, elected to take a buyout and fold the ABA Kentucky Colonels rather than pay a franchise fee and attempt to secure a spot in the NBA, certain local leaders, notably attorney J. Bruce Miller, have been trying to lure an NBA team to Louisville. Part of this was to try to build a new downtown arena with modern amenities suitable to the NBA. As usual, there were many abortive attempts at this over the year, but the city was never able to put together the package to make it happen.

However, recently, again in the wake of merger, the idea of a downtown arena came back, this time in a form that seems a virtual certainty to be constructed. An Arena Authority has been established. The financing is already in place and all systems are go. There is no talk of an NBA team this time around. Rather, the arena will be the home of University of Louisville basketball, secured by a deal that gives UoL such preferential rights to the arena it would have to be renegotiated to bring an NBA team in, and used for conventions and other events.

The city is right to forego shooting for an NBA team to launch the arena. The world has changed, and you can’t get a team with the mere promise of an arena – you have to have a world class one build ready for a team to move into. That’s exactly what Kansas City is trying to do, building a new arena with no tenant lined up. I’m sure Louisville hopes to get back in the game once the arena is built, though the UofL lease will complicate things. Also, Louisville has shot for a team and come up short so many times, I’m convinced there is something going on behind the scenes to torpedo it.

This arena was inspired by Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. In fact, in many ways it is a clone of that facility. However, the price tag is far from a clone. Conseco Fieldhouse was $175 million, much of it private money. The Louisville arena will be $450 million, making it one of the most expensive arenas ever built, and almost all of the money is public funds. With no team even playing there, that makes it a fairly dubious investment in my opinion. If eventually an NBA team lands there, it might be worth it, but even then, the city has really sunk a lot of its precious funds into something with dubious payoff.

Of the four major items highlighted here, this is by far the least transformational and most questionable project. It strikes me that a good arena at a minimum could have been constructed for half the price the city is paying.

A city like Louisville simply can’t afford to do everything. It has to pick and choose where to invest its precious dollars. For better or worse, these projects are where the city has chosen to invest. I believe that the Museum Plaza and City of Parks initiative are both fantastic programs that really differentiate the city and are among the most important urban planning undertakings anywhere in America.

The other two projects I’m less enthusiastic about. It is clear that the city needs better bridge crossings, but these projects will likely end up pulling huge amounts of funds away from other local transportation investments that, in their totality may have been worth more to the region.

The arena I think is fairly dubiuos. It will probably have benefits, and if an NBA team locates there eventually may be worth it, but ultimately I think there would have been better places to spend $450 million.

It is interesting that Louisville is the land of the mega-project. I personally have believed Louisville, because of its size and lack of financial heft, should stay away from playing keeping up with the Jones’s with arenas, etc. and rather should look to focus on great neighborhoods. On this axis, the City of Parks really stands out because it is something that is going to provide long term benefits that permeate the region. It’s not just one fancy park a la Millenium Park in Chicago, but rather a network of parks and trails to benefit the entire city. That makes it in my book the most important long term development.

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