Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

How many people want to move to the Midwest? Not many, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trust. Among the 30 largest metros in the Midwest, the eight least favorite in the country were all in the Midwest. The only Midwest city not in that group at the bottom was Chicago, and it has nothing to write home about, coming in at #18, well down the list. Usual suspects like Denver, San Diego, and Seattle top the league tables. I haven’t digested this fully myself. When did they survey people, for example? If it was in the winter…. Anyhow, I don’t think this will surprise anyone. And it goes again to illustrate the long road ahead even top performing Midwest cities have. Cincinnati was second to last on the list, and UncleRando over at UrbanCincy posted his response to that finding.

I know many folks won’t care for Wendell Cox, the pro-sprawl, anti-transit gadfly, but his group recently published their annual survey on housing affordability. The Midwest scores well here, with Indianapolis once again topping the list of most affordable markets. Of course, the story above might have something to do with the low prices, but you can’t dismiss the benefits of flat, wide open spaces.

Big news out of Chicago this week as an Illinois appeals court struck down the city’s landmark protection ordinance. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of historic districts. The court struck down the Chicago ordinance for much the same reason I don’t like them: overly vague criteria that more or less give officials the right to make totally arbitrary judgements and historic commissions that are stacked with activists of one type or another. You can read reaction from Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin here and from noted Chicago architecture blogger Lynn Becker here.

I would like to stress that I am a big fan of historic preservation (see “Preserving our Mid-Century Heritage” for an example). I actually don’t have any problem with narrowly tailored historic preservation ordinances that are designed to protect exceptional, bona fide significant sites. In fact, I think at least part of the Chicago approach, landmarking of individual structures, is the best way to go versus districts in most cases. The big problem I have is that there has been an extreme proliferation of historic districts around the country of dubious merit, almost entirely driven by upscale neighbors who are mostly interested in achieving land use control that is more properly the province of zoning. The fact that unlike zoning, historic districts are totally arbitrary, with no objective standards, is part of their appeal. Often the neighbors don’t even disguise that this is their real reason for wanting one. They say that want to “preserve the character” of their neighborhood. That’s exactly the same argument people made against fair housing laws. Indeed, I think there’s an argument to be made that historic districts should be invalidated on fair housing grounds. Where ever you find historic districts, extremely high home prices that render the district unaffordable to much of the community are often found right along with them. When I was living in Evanston, Illinois some years back, a group of neighbors promoted a historic district with the explicit intention of preventing Northwestern University from establishing any facilities in their neighborhood. They were quite transparent about this in the media. These types of arguments – over use types, density, etc – are more properly the province of the normal planning and zoning process, where neighbors do in fact have a seat at the table, if not the dictatorial power they would love to have.

The Chicago Sun-Times profiles new Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman. In this, Huberman acknowledges in the media for the first time what was already widely known, namely that he’s gay. (hat tip Chicago Carless).

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP – the region’s MPO among other things), has published some uber-cool maps of traffic congestion. Read ’em and weep. I’d love to see other cities produce great graphs like this. Here’s a sample from the Kennedy Expressway:

On, and it a bit of blog craziness, it seems the developer of the north side Wilson Yards project is suing to uncover the identity of bloggers who have criticized the project. Classy.

And here’s a great blog entry from a guy who walked 23 miles of Kedzie Avenue. Great stuff.

The Twin Cities are usually considered among the top cities for life sciences, particularly medical devices, in the United States. But an interesting report out this week suggests that Minnesota is in fact falling behind in medical technology. I always find these types of studies interesting. There are usually two flavors. Flavor one is designed to showcase how great a region is doing. Flavor two is designed to show that a region is falling behind, usually as part of a call to action for some type of public policy response. It would be interesting to see the dynamics of how these get produced. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting that Minnesota is doing a “type two” study. The BioBusiness Destination 2025 study web site is here. The report isn’t online. I’ve emailed to ask for a copy so stay tuned.

There’s a really awesome thread over at DetroitYES with a pictures of historic street lights. Incredibly, many of the street lights in operation in Detroit are a century old or so. One advantage of having a city that is broke, I guess, is that so much really old stuff just gets left in place. Again, these things appear not to just be old, but actually still in service. This perhaps points to an asset Detroit has that no other city can match. Remember how I said we should invert the world? How many other cities have such a genuine collection of historic artifacts in their town? Take your weakness and make it into a strength somehow.

Nuvo Newsweekly in Indianapolis reports that they were the only local mainstream media outlet to cover the Pride of Indy band playing at the Obama innauguration. Can we imagine this happening for any group other than gays and lesbians? I’ll say it again, Indy will never reach its potential as a city if it treats its LGBT community like second class citizens.

Let me put the argument in terms of pure self-interest. Indy can build the best airport in the United States, can have the greatest branding campaign out there, can spend a billion on first class stadiums and convention centers, but if it actively denigrates its gay and lesbian population, all of that hard work and money will never take the city where it wants to go. I showed before that people glom on to anecdotes that reinforce what they already believe. People around the country think Hoosiers are socially backwards retrogrades. Look at the top of this post for what people think of the Midwest. I don’t happen to agree with that, but stuff like this only let’s people feel good about their stereotyping.

Like it or not, the fact is that LGBT acceptance is going mainstream in America today. Heck, as my story above about Chicago appointing a gay schools chief shows, in lots of places, it is already here. You can treat this fact like all too many Midwest cities treated globalization – by sticking your head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist because you don’t like it – but we’ve seen where that gets you. I am not saying that Indianapolis needs to try to be a gay mecca or do anything whatsoever special for gays and lesbians. But the city’s LGBT community cannot be singled out for second class treatment. It is impossible to conceive of a local high school band, or African American band at the inauguration not getting coverage. Now let me say that the Star did give coverage to the Indy Pride parade last year, and did a nice story on the local gay library. So I don’t think this is actively malicious. But I do believe the local media needs to be sensitive to things like this, and, as they say in the business world, set the tone from the top about how things need to be.

Now, since I’ve often argued that following trends isn’t always the best approach, let me just say that if you think there’s a way to profit from slighting your gay community, by all means make the case. But I don’t think there’s a good one to be made. Maybe there are people out there that feel so strongly that homosexuality is wrong that they are willing to go down with the ship, so to speak, just as we’ve seen so many old manufacturing towns fall into ruin as their residents refused to change. I certainly hope, however, this is a view held by only a small minority.

On a more positive note, the IBJ covers the formation of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force. This is a huge positive development in Indianapolis transit. The MPO has studied rail lines and done great work in getting ridership figures and such accepted by the FTA. But this group is going to take a more holistic look at transit locally. What’s more, these are people who can build concensus in the community around actually moving forward with a system that is likely to cost a significant amount of local dollars to implement. I’ve said it before, but Indy has one of the strongest “civic sectors” in America. When the local armada gets into formation, watch out. Because when Indy decides it is going to do something, it does it. We’ll see what emerges from this, but I’m very optimistic. Oh, and right on cue, Mayor Ballard adds his support with an op-ed in the Star.

Over in Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland is calling for a massive overhaul of schools. I haven’t looked at this in specifics yet myself, but it definitely appears worth study.

From the “Simply Unbelievable” department comes the high profile story from Brandeis University, which wants to close its campus Rose Art Museum, and sell off all the art works to raise general funds for the school. This is simply unconscionable. The worst part is not what just floating this idea does to Brandeis, namely deservedly turn its name to mud, but the chill it sends across museums nationally. Expect that donors are going to be demanding ever greater ironclad legal strings on their donations, which only will hamper the mission of museums over time as more and more encumbrances are piled on. In the long term, even the most well-intentioned strings lose their meaning and come to hinder rather than help or preserve. The challenge is that when you can’t trust museum administrators, this is what you get. Terrible news indeed.

A group called The Transport Politic has a proposal for a national high speed rail network. Their Midwest segment differs significantly from the Midwest high speed rail association proposal.

Remember that fantastic “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing? Apparently it now sits empty, with paint peeling off, and is planned to anchor a shopping center.

More News Briefs:

South Shore reject cooperation on buses. (Times of Northwest Indiana). Hello???????
When CTA drivers runs light, you pay (Tribune – Hilkevitch)

Delta Queen to become hotel in Chattanooga. (Business First of Louisville). Thank you Congress.
Orchestra falls $3.8 million short (Enquirer)

Master plan for IUPUI (Circle and Squares)
City’s grades on snow have a long way to go. (Indy Star – Tully).
Snowbound streets have residents fuming. (Indy Star)

$20 million gift to fund UofL energy center (Courier-Journal)

St. Louis:
Billions of dollars blown in regional development subsidies (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities:
Minnesota road/bridge projects could get green light (Star-Tribune)
Noblesville ready to start $20 million road project (Indy Star).

Topics: Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Talent Attraction, Transportation
Cities: Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul

8 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. Randy Simes says:

    Great collection of stories. The “Bird’s Nest” doesn’t surprise me, but is unfortunate. The high-speed rail network plan is really cool – something I could get lost in for hours. The Uptown Chicago Bloggers suit is not only hilarious but telling of the power that bloggers are accumulating nowadays. Oh yeah, the link to my site was pretty cool too.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks – I think the link to your site was cool too!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Regarding the criticism of local media in not covering the LGBT band at the inauguration, I think critics need to put forth all relevant information in their assessments – especially in the spirit of criticizing the dissemination of news. The Pride of Indy didn’t perform – 11 members of our local band performed. They joined members of other gay bands from 26 states. To me, this isn’t a very strong local story that demanded coverage. It’s a national story.

    You and Nuvo may be right about local media’s bias against the LGBT community – I haven’t evaluated it over time – but this example isn’t much grist for the mill.

  4. Boofer says:

    I love your updates from around the Midwest. It puts everything in one place for me to read – great job and keep up the good blogging.

    I do, however, want to chastise you just a little bit for your characterization of Wendell Cox. I don’t think it’s fair to label him as “pro-sprawl” and “anti-transit” and just leave it at that. For people who might read your blog who have never heard of Wendell, your characterization sets up an unfair first impression of his positions – just as people who have never been to Indiana might form their impression of the place from a mischaracterization on The West Wing. To be fair, Wendell Cox is not “pro-sprawl” or “anti-transit.” His position with is very consistently to favor the rights of landowners to utilize their property. He often specifically cites the failed policies of places like Portland, OR in creating hard boundaries to development that lead to housing unaffordability and ultimately push sprawl further out from the city center. And as for transit, he really just implores us all to realize that public transportation, specifically rail/light rail projects, are never capable of standing alone without additional public funding. All too often civic leaders in cities around the world push rail transit proposals with the idea that they can be self-sustaining and self-funding once built. But the examples are too many to name of places where rail transit systems are nothing but expensive boondoggles that do not accomplish the goals on which the public had been sold the concept. Think of just a few rail transit systems in the U.S. that were built with the promise of operational self-funding that will now require public subsidy into perpetuity – St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the new rail lines in Nashville. Mr. Cox makes very good points about the realities of public policies aimed at limiting sprawl and providing public mass transit. I don’t believe this makes him pro-sprawl or anti-transit – it just makes him one of the very few people willing to call a spade a spade.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    To be fair, Wendell Cox is not “pro-sprawl” or “anti-transit.” His position with is very consistently to favor the rights of landowners to utilize their property.

    I’d believe that a lot more if he didn’t lobby for more federal funding of highways, or pretend that the Sunbelt doesn’t have zoning regulations. When someone whose education consists of an MBA funds a thinktank whose urban policy recommendations run counter to those of virtually everyone with academic background in urban planning, I think “hack” is a better description than “calling a spade a spade.”

    For a prime example, let’s look at the link Aaron provided. It uses an index of housing affordability based on housing prices, which makes very little sense in markets with low home ownership, like New York and California. The Bureau of Economic Analysis gets it right and uses a formula for rent/mortgage equivalence to weight renters’ and owners’ prices; Cox gets it wrong.

    Then, reacting to the fact that New York, Boston, and Seattle have had very little housing deflation, Cox decides they’re in grave danger. The housing bubble burst almost a year and a half ago; if there had been delayed housing deflation, we would’ve seen it in at least one metro area already. Tellingly, Cox doesn’t provide a single example of a metro area with delayed deflation. Meanwhile, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix have had great housing deflation, but Cox still says it’s the fault of smart growth.

    He’s a hack. Let’s move on.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “He often specifically cites the failed policies of places like Portland, OR in creating hard boundaries to development that lead to housing unaffordability and ultimately push sprawl further out from the city center.”

    As opposed to the suburbs that had massively inflated home values that were similarly unaffordable but with all of the negatives of sprawl and none of the positives of Portland? I’m still waiting for the critics of Portland to present its free market equivalent that shows that you can create a Portland without the urban growth boundaries and the investment in transit and that provide affordable housing. Where is that town?

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Whatever one might think of Cox, good or bad, he’s got a reputation among people. Whenever someone I cite comes from a particular political or policy POV that isn’t obvious to the casual reader, I try to remember to say something about it just so people know.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    The problem isn’t that he has a POV. It’s that he has a POV and no expertise. I wouldn’t be so concerned if you’d quoted Ed Glaeser, who at least publishes in peer-reviewed journals.

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