Monday, April 16th, 2007

Growing Up

It is very common for emerging cities to swing between extremes of self-perception. Either there is extreme boosterism on the one hand, or wallowing in the mire of self-flagellation on the other. Both are exhibitions of a lack of true self-confidence.

In that light, I found it interesting to see this review of the Humana Festival of New American Plays in LEO, an alternative weekly in Louisville. I mentioned this festival earlier as legitimately bringing significant artistic attention to Louisville every year. This article’s tone can be gathered from it’s “Stick a fork in it” title. The author is quite critical of both the plays presented, and much of the festival in general.

You might think this would put the essay in the self-flagellation category, but I didn’t see it. Instead, the general tone seemed to be, hey, we don’t really need this thing. To me that is evidence of a rising self-confidence, a belief that the artistic community in Louisville is strong enough that it isn’t dependent on everyone singing the praises of this one two-week festival per year. The authors specifically mentions their belief that local playwrights can and have written better, for example.

This is what cities like New York have. They expect the best and they dish out tough criticism when those expectations aren’t met. But that doesn’t mean they think having some stink bomb play reflects poorly on the state of their city. It just doesn’t even occur to them. Being able to engage in realistic, detached criticism of yourself without going overboard into the woe is me routine is a part of growing up and a journey the cities I cover will all have to make.

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Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Louisville

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Why I Hate Historic Districts

What can seem less controversial than protecting our heritage and keeping our most important historic buildings from being lost? I certainly don’t disagree with the goal, but, as implemented today in America, historic districts represent government at its worst.

I try not to get too political in this blog, since I don’t believe my ideas are paritsan, though it is obvious I believe in certain principles such as the free market. What I consider perhaps the most important part of our political system is the idea of the rule of law. Now because of legal positivism and many other theories, this has become a rather meaningless term. So let me explain what it means to me. Fundamentally, the rule of law means that the power of government is executed only in accordance with general rules, that are published in advance, provide a sure guide to compliance, and apply to everyone equally. Contrast this with the rule of the commissar, where a government official has the arbitrary right to apply the standards he sees fit to a situation, leading to a situation where you don’t know if you are in compliance with the law or not until the commissar makes his ruling.

A great example of the rule of law is zoning. Whether you agree with zoning or not is another matter entirely, but at least it meets the test. If you own a parcel of land, it is easy to look up the zoning, where a set of clear rules exist which specify what uses are allowed on the land, what types of buildings, setbacks, etc. For uses that are compliant with the zoning of the parcel, going through the approval process is a purely administrative matter. The city can’t stop you from building something just because they don’t like it, and if they do, you can go to court and get an order to allow you to proceed. It is only when you want to do something outside of the zoning of the parcel, that is, when you are seeking a rezoning or a variance, that acceptance or denial becomes a more arbitrary matter, and that’s ok because what we are talking about is changing the law to accomodate the new use.

Contrast this with historic districts as they operate in many places and see the difference. In a historic district, there are no fixed guidelines on what is acceptable. There is no way to know in advance if plans will be approved or not. The sole judge of whether or not something in a historic district is permitted is a historic preservation board, which functions exactly as a board of commissars. Their unlimited, arbitrary personal judgement is the sole authority. In theory they have guidelines, but nothing forces them to be adhered to. Rulings of the historic boards can’t be appealed to the courts, usually only to the city council, making everything equivalent to seeking variance.

What’s more, these boards are typically appointed, not elected, and like many such special purpose boards tend to be populated with various people who have a stake in the game, such as historic preservation activists – exactly the sort of people who are the least likely to balance the competing interests of the community of the whole in favor of their own personal pet interest. Preservation interests would surely howl at a board filled with developers, but what we usually get instead is exactly the opposite situation.

Worst of all, and the reason I hate historic districts so much, is that these historic commissions are often little more than rubber stamps for the opinion of “neighborhood organizations”, themselves usually a small activist part of a community, totally self-selected and self-organizing, and opposed as a general rule to many classes of development otherwise permitted by zoning. It has long been every neighborhood organization’s dream to make its input on a project legally binding and to take complete and arbitrary control over all development in an area. Historic districts allow them to do this. It’s no surprise that it is generally neighborhood groups, not city officials or preservation experts, who push for these districts. Getting an official local historic district gives them a powerful lever to turn the opinions of a small neighborhood junta into law. In fact, that’s often even the stated rationale of creating the district in the first place. For example, when I lived in Evanston, Illinois, a new historic district was created on the northeastern lakefront by a group of people who admitted to the media their goal was to prevent encroachment by Northwestern University, which they felt was unfairly tax exempt.

It almost goes without saying that most of these neighborhoods aren’t even that historic. Getting on the National Register of Historic Places is shockingly easy. Pretty much anyplace that meets the technical requirements, such as being 50 years old, can get on it if the neighbors are motivated to try. National Register inclusion doesn’t come with much in the way of teeth, but it is easy to get and sounds impressive, and can be waved in front of the city council to get them to establish a local historic district that does have enforcement powers.

I was thinking about this a while ago while reading the March 2007 edition of the Urban Times, a monthly free newsletter covering downtown Indianapolis. A few of the articles really caught my eye. Page 12 had an article titled “Size of 500 Walnut project draws some criticism”. In it we are told by Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission member Susan Williams, “I have some problems with its context and impact on the very few historic buildings in that block”. So right away we determine that a) it isn’t demolishing anything historic and b) there are very few historic buildings around. (So how did this become a historic district again? Hmmmmm……). The real reasons soon come out as neighbor Wayne Radford says, “I don’t think it is sensitive to the neighborhood’s needs.” And who determine’s what the neighborhood’s needs are? Well, none other than the Chatham Arch Neighborhood Association, whose vote the IHPC was eagerly awaiting. The results were 17 in favor, 20 opposed. So 37 people who just happen to live in the neighborhood get to decide what is historic or not. Do they even represent the community? Not really, they were just the local residents who happened to show up, by definition not representative of those who didn’t. Remembering that historic preservation is supposed to be about, well, history, it isn’t clear to me what makes 37 locals a better judge of that such that they are in a privileged position to give input. Would the building be magically ok if the vote went the other way? Do any of these people have any qualifications for judging appropriateness in a historic context? Naturally the IHPC backed the neighbors up. The developer asked for a continuance for further negotiations when it became clear that he didn’t have the votes. Of course, these negotiations are all about reducing the project size. The building height had already been scaled back and the number of units reduced from 16 to 12 already. This exposes the real rationale for being against the project as – and this is almost always the case – density, not history. The acting chair of the IHPC didn’t even attempt to disguise this by offering a historic rationle. He said, “Although everyone likes the design, it doens’t feel like the size and scale will fit on that lot.” I’m sure the neighbors, even though this is downtown for goodness sake, would prefer nothing but single family homes because that is all any neighborhood group anywhere ever wants.

This wasn’t the only article. It gets even better. A companion piece was labeled “Herron-Morton Place ‘doubles’ sent back to drawing board”. Herron-Morton is another downtown neighborhood. Rejecting the proposal, Susan Williams describes the designs as “monotonous”. I didn’t realize that a historic district was a neo-suburban anti-monotony ordinance, but I stand corrected. Incidentially, many of these districts are protected in the first place because they are monotonous, with an inventory of similar homes built about the same time. But I digress. She does go on to say furthermore that they were “out of context with the existing very interesting historic structures.” Ok, that’ s much better. And actually one reason I mention it is because it illustrates one time that the IHPC voted against the neighborhood association, which supported the project despite their general policy that “vacant lots should be redeveloped as single-family homes”. Apparently the IHPC feels even more strongly about single-family only than the neighbors do. IHPC member Alan Lobley said he could not support a two-family project. A city administrator had to remind him that land use decisions are not the province of the IHPC and that they should focus on “legitimate historic preservation issues” and that the lots were zoned to allow multi-family housing. His reminder apparently fell on deaf ears. Being a commissar means never having to say you’re sorry.

Here’s my personal favorite. An article on page 38 of the very same issue (“Neigborhood supports unique building” – even the title tells you who is in charge) takes the cake. The IHPC has no problem with a “contemporary style” commercial structure, though they want the developer to make a few tweaks. Why? Well, the St. Josephy Historic Neighborhood Association supported it, that’s why. So tell me this, if you are allowing contemporary design structures in a historic district, what’s the purpose of the district anyway? If you aren’t regulating architectural style, what the heck are you regulating? This makes a mockery of the entire process.

Anyone visiting downtown Indianapolis would not think of it as a unique mecca of historic architecture, but you wouldn’t know this from the large number of historic districts, which continue to escalate as new neighborhood groups realize that they too can get in on the action of having a city commission spinkle holy water and turn their word into law. Several new districts such as Cottage Home are in the works. It won’t be long before all of downtown is a historic district. This is already causing extreme red tape and raising the costs of doing business downtown. (This is one reason why most of the new housing there is so expensive – the neighbors probably also like that btw – keeps the “riff raff” out). The IHPC process is acting like a boat anchor on the city. What’s more, it is actually promoting poor quality development in many cases because what the neighbors really want is low density. A project can actually look terrible – such as a recent new one story concrete block storefront on Mass Ave – as long as it is low density. Even downtown it is difficult to get decent density, which is why street life in most parts of downtown Indy suffers and there isn’t the retail development people would like to see. That takes people, and none of the neighbors their want any places for those people to live. The IHPC has converted significant tracts of downtown Indy into low-density single family neighborhoods not much different from any small town in Indiana.

As I said earlier, few of these districts are truly historic. It is ironic in the extreme to discover the Monument Circle was not a historic district, but St. Joseph is. The criteria seems to be whoever has motivated neighbors can get a district. And why not? Every time a new one is created it makes it more difficult to tell the next group No. Sure, there are a few truly historic districts like the North Merdian corridor and Lockerbie Square, but these are few and far between. Literally any inner city neighborhood of Indianapolis would be historic by the standards used to create most of the existing districts. This history will no doubt be discovered the minute enough yuppies move in and renovate a critical mass of homes.

I think there’s a better way. It starts with apply significant skepticism to any district which would give out powers that violate the rule of law. Beyond that, a few concrete examples:

  • Stop taking National Register inclusion into account when creating local historic districts. Rather, the only time one should get “extra credit” for national recognition is for National Historic Landmarks, which are much tougher to get.
  • Far better than landmarking districts is landmarking individual historic structures. This is the approach taken in many cities, and provided the right state legislation is in place, it is the best way to go. In the case of Indianapolis, yet another large historic district is being established in the core of downtown that is really to protect one structure, the endangered Illinois Building. This is the wrong way to do it.
  • Stop giving neighborhood associations preferrential input into the process. If public input is to be solicited, it should be broad based community input. The focus on should be on having qualified experts judge the historical impact, not busybody neighbors who are concerned with land use much more so than history.
  • Avoid stacking commissions with activists. Anyone with a connection to the neighborhood in question should be forced to recuse themselves from the proceedings.
  • Try to draft guidelines that are as clear and prescriptive as possible, as close to zoning as you can make it. For example, if a particular district is known for a particular style of construction, mandate that instead of just putting in a the purely arbitrary judgement of the commissars.
  • Make historic preservation decisions appealable to the courts with a clear mandate to overturn those that are manifestly about land use, not history. Judges would have this power anyway, should they wish to take it on themselves.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list, but should be enough to think about the types of reforms that need to be implemented to prevent abusive historic district commissariates like the IHPC from taking arbitrary control over land use in large tracts of our cities.

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Review: The Kansas City Urban Society 2020 Plan

[Note: this organization appears to no longer exist. Its web site and plan are no longer available.]

Some time back I promised to take more in-depth look at 2020 blueprint plan put forward by a group called the Urban Society of Kansas City. Their purpose is to advocate for an urban future for Kansas City. I thought this sounded interesting so decided to dive in.

As it turned out, it shouldn’t have taken me so long to get around to this. The report itself is not that long and did not take long to digest. It highlights four objectives they want Kansas City to achieve by 2020:

  • Add 100,000 new housing units. This is patently unrealistic. Their entire metro area probably doesn’t have more than 10-15,000 housing starts per year, and we are only 13 years from 2020 believe it or not!
  • Around the clock transit within a 5 minute walk of everywhere. That’s an extreme density of transit, and no system in the world I’m aware of provides that level of coverage during owl service periods.
  • Add 1,000 new storefront businesses.
  • Fill 95% of the city’s vacant land, including surface lots.

Barring a miracle, this plan is unachievable by 2020. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By setting an aspirational vision of what the city should be like, they are providing a pole star to guide future development.

What I would take issue with is the goals themselves. More housing, jobs, and transit are all good things. But if you think about what achieving these goals would actually mean, you can see that what we are talking about is transforming Kansas City into something along the lines of San Francisco or an old European city. That gives me pause. Kansas City isn’t San Francisco. And it isn’t clear to me why it would want to try to be. Now I love San Francisco. It’s probably my favorite city in the US. But to try to imitate San Francisco (or Boston or whatever the model of urbanity is this group is pursuing) is really a form of insecurity.

The cities I cover in this blog here are growing up, and like anyone coming of age, they look at their more established peers and feel a bit jealous. But there is no need to imitate the older kids, so to speak. Boston and SF aren’t the only templates for urban success. Smaller Midwest metros that have an entirely different history and development pattern are never going to be able to effectively replicate that old 19th century paradigm of urbanity. So why try? It isn’t necessary. Kansas City and other places can find their own definition of success, based on what they are, not on what they aren’t. Be the best Kansas City you can be, not the best imitator of Boston. I’m a big lover of cities. But a city doesn’t have to be Boston to be a city, even a great one.

What I do agree total with is the Urban Society’s revulsion towards encroaching suburban style development in the central city. Just as given the choice between the real Boston and a place that isn’t Boston trying to act like it, people will choose a real suburb over a city trying to act like one in a heartbeat. A San Francisco style urban development approach might even be the best way to do that in some areas, such as downtown and established urban districts. But it probably can’t and shouldn’t be replicated citywide. A “third way” needs to be found.

Beyond the goals, the report lays out a four step plan to achieve the vision. These are:

  1. Adopt urban design principles, which they call the “Orange Card” (more on that later)
  2. Six near term programs to improve the city: maximize on street parking, eliminate one way streets, ban strip malls, align tax abatements with economic objectives, rebuild intersections from suburban to urban style, demand better corporate citizenship and leadership.
  3. Strengthen and connect neighborhoods and districts based on a neighborhood hierarchy of city center, town center, and neighborhood.
  4. A list of “the hard stuff”: reconnecting schools to neighborhoods, broken-windows policing and community courts, improved access to services, removing freeways, mitigating sprawl, and encouraging risk taking to broaden revitalization.

Now there’s a lot to like in these. For example, the six quick hit items are difficult to quibble with, excepting perhaps their intersection recommendations. In particular, handing out TIF money and tax abatements like candy-canes to the connected who are as interested in lining their own pockets as building the city’s future is the bane of Kansas City and all too many other places.

Only item #3 seems a bit weak. Planners love functional hierarchies, but it is tough for me to get excited about them. “Strengthen and connect neighborhoods” is also the type of feel good statement that is operationally content free.

On item #4, yup, these are hard. Kansas City was the site of a disastrous federal intervention in local schools that should illustrate just how hard much of this is.

The “Orange Card” list of recommendations for urban design, however, are the highlight. I assume this group came up with the concept. It is a list of very simple design principles that should be applied to public and private development in order to achieve urban design.

The list for public entities is:

  1. Permit curb cuts on no more than 10% of the sidewalk
  2. Keep corners clear of obstructions for pedestrians
  3. Maintain or reduce street width at intersections, do not widen. (That is, don’t add lots of special turn lanes and such to widen out a road at an intersection).
  4. Maximize on street parking
  5. Eliminate one way streets
  6. Maintain tight corner radii
  7. Require street trees
  8. Allow traffic lanes no more than 10 feet wide
  9. Maintain consistent appearance of streetscape elements.

This is a pretty good list. I’d probably quibble with a few points. For example, it isn’t necessary to eliminate one-way streets. Many of the truly urban places are replete with one way streets because of narrow street widths, for example.

The major point that should be thought about further here is the requirement for 10-foot travel lanes. This works for cars, but not heavy trucks. One thing you find missing from the Urban Society’s report in general is a discussion of the role of industry in the city. Cities were traditionally as much about being factories to the world as they were about storefront business districts. The Urban Society seems to have a post-industrial future in mind for Kansas City. I suppose that’s something one can aspire to, but it’s also something that should be explicitly laid out on the table with the pros and cons clearly understood. For example, what are the implications for lower income people? Are they simply to become a coolie-class, working in service jobs to cater to the needs of the elite knowledge workers and creative class? Now let me say that the Urban Society doesn’t say this is what they want. But when there is no mention of industrial districts in their plan, only major office, retail, and residential districts, you have to wonder if they’ve thought this all through. Again, the model seems to be San Francisco.

The list for private entities is:

  1. Build out to the sidewalk
  2. Make the building front permeable (no blank walls)
  3. Minimize curb cuts
  4. Use clear glass at sidewalk level
  5. Establish primary entrances at sidewalks, not parking lots
  6. Use durable building materials
  7. Encourage shared off street parking.

Again, this is a hard list to argue with if traditional urban style development is what you want. I think the Urban Society did a great job in general of distilling the essence of urban development down to a few simple rules. Now I’ve seen similar lists elsewhere, so perhaps they can’t take all the credit, but I like the compelling “Orange Card” presentation.

One thought provoking item is the notion of durable materials. In a world of such rapid change, does trying to create buildings for the ages really make sense any more? This isn’t so much a comment on the Urban Society report as just a general notion. We’ve all seen how older buildings can be both a blessing and a curse. When a poor structure is erected, it can be difficult and expensive to replace or redevelopment. And even the newest “Class A” space is soon obsolete because of new generation amenities. Just look at the rate of innovation in warehousing, for example. Perhaps a better approach is to find out how to build with a defined lifespan and in a way that maximizes redevelopment opportunities later. This is a notion I’ve been kicking around for many years.

So overall, what is good about the plan?

  • It sets explicit, aspirational goals. You can disagree with them, but the Urban Society has laid their cards on the table. No hidden agendas here.
  • The Orange Card is a pretty good, simple distillation of urban design principles.
  • There are plenty of example photos to illustrate exactly what they are talking about, which is nice.

What is weak? Fundamentally, I think it is that the Urban Society put forth the standard version of the conventional wisdom on urbanity and did not think through the broader implications, or put forth anything new or thought provoking. I mentioned the lack of consideration of industrial uses previously. There’s also the fact that in Kansas City, as in most metro areas, the bulk of the people now live in the suburbs, most new development is there, and what’s more, they like it there. They talk about mitigating sprawl and acknowledge it is hard, but don’t talk much about how this urban city is embedded into its overall region. For example, the bulk of the jobs are in the suburbs now too. How does a transit system built around city center nodes help with reverse commuters with highly diffuse origins and destinations?

Also, it is difficult to see the linkages between the actions they recommend taking, which seem to be primarily about achieving urban form, and the goals of increasing housing and businesses. There almost seems to be a view that if the infrastructure and form are in correct urban form, the rest will just take care of itself. I’m not so sanguine on that point. It would be useful to know, for example, why these recommendations are going to generate 100,000 new housing units.

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

On Gentrification

The Boston Globe had an interesting essay this week talking about gentrification. I’m not sure what this was. I’m assuming some sort of op-ed since it doesn’t read like a normal article. The point the author is trying to make is that gentrification is more complex than it first appears, and there are winners/losers of various races. It is not just a monolithic rich whites displace poor blacks.

My position on gentrification is very clear. It is the principle enshrined in landmark civil rights legislation and the Fair Housing Act. Namely that people have a right to live where ever they want to and can afford to. There is more than a whiff of retrograde ideas in the anti-gentrification push. Activists talk about the “character of the neighborhood” and “displacement” of existing residents. What they forget is just a few short decades ago those same words were nothing more than racial code words for keeping neighborhoods white. It can’t be “fair housing” for thee and “gentrification” for me. Trying to maintain neighborhoods as the private preserve of an exclusive group of people is discrimination plain and simple.

However, there is more to the story. If change is driven by the free market, by people choosing where to live and developers choosing where to build, that’s ok. But too often gentrification is active public policy. The city declares a neighborhood blighted and starts using eminent domain to acquire properties to turn over to connected (i.e., campaign contributing) developers. TIF and other subsidy funds are handed out. PUD or other zoning favors are given for developers who are putting in “high class” development.

There is a certain tension here. As I’ve noted elsewhere, any improvement in a neighborhood increases property values and thus affects the poor negatively. So just something like replacing sidewalks and adding street lights can start driving the poor out. I’m not going to suggest we should leave urban neighborhoods to decay in the interest of allowing the poor a place to live.

But too often city officials, and just plain citizens, drive around and see these old neighborhoods full of charm and character, though a bit run down, and see only the potential of the buildings, of the built environment. The people in the neighborhood barely register, except possibly as a negative. I’ve seen many comments from the well-meaning on urban discussion forums talking about how certain neighborhoods have great potential for lofts, condos, coffee shops, and swank restaurants. I think it is pretty obvious who they imagine might live in those condos and eat in those establishments. All this while exclaiming over the architecture. I call this “love the neighborhood, hate the neighbors”.

There seems to be only one model of urban rejuvenation that city planners and all too many others understand: converting older neighborhoods into yuppie playgrounds. Everything else is viewed as blight even if in a certain sense it might be thriving. I think of the many immigrant neighborhoods, which are often full of profitable small businesses, yet still are viewed as distressed because these businesses don’t look like the shiny, new, high design concept the upscale expect.

I know many cities are desperate to get anyone with money to move there. And that’s a worthwhile goal. When all you’ve got is poor people, that’s not a recipe for civic success. Still, by focusing on a pretty narrow slice: yuppies with no kids (or pre-school aged children), empty nesters, tourists, etc. can a city thrive? Can you have a successful city without a broad middle class? Time will tell. I think it is worth noting, however, that even a place like Chicago, which has seen perhaps the biggest urban condo building boom of any city in the US thanks to pro-development policies and land availability, is actually losing population. The influx of the upscale can’t make up for the departures of everyone else. I ultimately believe that to be truly successful, a city needs to have a broad middle class that chooses to live there. Obviously this is no easy feat given the state of urban schools, but this is the core problem that needs to be solved.

In the meantime, I’d challenge cities to step up and think of redevelopment ideas that don’t involve lots of condos and Starbucks. Take into account the people who actually live in these neighborhoods, not just the built environment. Think about the businesses who’ve toughed it out there, not just about the big national chains or swank local shops you hope to attract. And recognize that urban success doesn’t always look the same, and a little grit and lack of a fancy interior designers, etc. doesn’t make a neighborhood run down or blighted.

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

Goethe on Leadership

“They who never ate their bread with tears, never lay weeping through the night’s long agony – they know yet not, ye Heavenly Powers.”

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Topics: Urban Culture

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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