Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Louisville: The Case for 8664

A few weeks ago, JC Stites, co-founder of 8664 invited me down to Louisville to talk about the proposal and take a first hand tour of the riverfront. Even as a Louisville native, I had never really walked around there, which shows you how disconnected the city is from the river. The experience is eye-opening. So I thought I’d share some of what I saw with you.

First, here’s a short 40 second video of JC talking about 8664 and what they hope to accomplish:

First a bit of history. There’s long been a desire on the part of many, especially in Southern Indiana, to connect the Indiana and Kentucky legs of I-265 by building a new bridge in the East End. Among other benefits, this would shorten travel times for many to major East End employment centers and open up large amount of already industrially zoned land, including an old army depot, for development. The logic of this connection can be confirmed with a simple look at the map.

However, prior to city-county consolidation, Mayor Jerry Abramson strongly opposed an East End bridge, fearing it would allow traffic to bypass downtown Louisville. He insisted on a new downtown bridge instead. Also, the East End bridge would past through the most wealthy and influential suburbs of Louisville, notably Prospect, and residents there strongly opposed an East End bridge. Hoosiers were adamantly in favor an East End bridge.

As a result, the two sides compromised and agreed to build both an East End and downtown bridge, under the fiction of a “two bridges, one project” solution. The problem is that the price tag is outrageously high – $4.1 billion and getting higher by the day. This is likely the desired outcome for East Enders and their fake environmental group River Fields. They demanded ultra expensive features designed as a poison pills to kill the project.

A bigger problem came to light later. Namely the destructive impact the bridge would have on downtown Louisville. You may remember this graphic showing the immense scale of the redesigned Spaghetti Junction interchange on the Kentucky side of the river. Again, to put this in perspective, note the baseball stadium in the lower left:

It’s worth taking a step back and considering Louisville as a river city. It was originally founded as a portage point on the “falls of the Ohio”, a rapids area that was the only non-navigable point on the river. As with most cities, it’s waterfront was originally industrial and commercial, with all the negatives that implies, and the city turned its back on the filth and vice that filled the area. The river became cut off from the city, first by elevated railroad tracks, then by the elevated I-64 freeway.

Today, however, riverfront across America are being reclaimed as the old heavy industrial era passes, our rivers are cleaned up, and the water becomes valuable for recreational and other purposes. Today, the riverfront in Louisville is a wonder and beautiful area:

There are so many cities across America with glorified creeks that they are nevertheless trying to reclaim as valuable riverfront parkland. My friends, this is what a real river looks like.

Unfortunately, Louisville has long been cut off from the river. While its downtown is only a stone’s throw from the riverfront, there’s almost no sense that it is there when you are in the city. Downtown and the West End are cut off from the river by a combination of a flood wall and a freeway. The only time most people in Louisville is ever see the river is when they drive across a bridge or visit the Belvedere, a sort of elevated public plaza.

To see why, just check out the photos of what blocks the riverfront today, right now:

That’s taken directly from under I-64. Here’s another:

Got flyovers?

Here’s another one showing the 9th St. ramp system:

Speaking of 9th St., it’s not just the river that’s cut off from downtown. The 9th St. corridor is a huge barrier between downtown and the West End:

Let’s just say that I highly doubt this shot of Main St. is likely to get featured in a Louisville tourist brochure.

It’s not just I-64. The expansion of Spaghetti means the widening of the I-65 approach through the hospital curve. Our friends at Broken Sidewalk put together fabulous coverage of this. Here’s a rendering they pulled from the bridges project materials:

There are a large number of buildings that will destroyed, including as Broken Sidewalk notes, “the Baer Fabrics Building, a small red brick 1880s building, a century old ice warehouse, part of the century-old Vermont American factory, and others. Maybe worse than demolition, the Billy Goat Strut apartments on Main Street and Hancock Street, one of the first redevelopment projects in town with some of the best historic architecture, will have a great view of the highway, which appears about 15 or 20 feet from its windows.”

To put in in perspective, here’s the current I-65 with the footprint of the new overlaid on it:

The road is more than doubling in width. The extensive damage to the urban fabric of the medial district area and Butchertown is big, but especially galling in light of what is happening in Prospect. There, the locals got together to hastily propose an estate for National Register inclusion so that the federally funded bridges project couldn’t harm it. Naturally the Drummond Estate happened to be in the path of the highway. So, in one of those poison pills I mentioned, a $250 million tunnel under the property was proposed. (The KYTC can’t even successfully bore a test tunnel at the site, so I’m not optimistic the actual tunnel is constructable for anything near $250 million).

But wait, as it turns out, the estate isn’t actually impacted by the path of the road at all:

Seeing the treatment of this suburban area versus downtown Louisville is mind-boggling.

8664 has a better idea. Instead of all this destruction, Louisville can:

  • Build the East End bridge as planned. (As an addition, I’d suggest ditching the tunnel).
  • Tear down I-64 from just east of 22nd St. to the Kennedy Bridge, replacing it with an at grade parkway.
  • Simplify Spaghetti Junction to remove un-needed ramps and reduce congestion.
  • Re-route I-64 over I-265 across the new East End bridge. Rename the current I-64 in the interior of that bypass as I-364.

This plan:

  • Saves a huge amount of money by eliminating a second bridge and extensive Spaghetti Junction reconstruction.
  • Avoids huge urban destruction in the area of Spaghetti Junction
  • Enables the city to exploit the riverfront as a recreational area, and reconnect downtown to the riverfront and West End.

The choice is very clear. Does Louisville want this:

Or this:

The answer seems like a no-brainer to me. 8664 is better and cheaper. How often do you get a choice like that?

The rendering above does show one quibble I have with 8664. Notice the lack of a floodwall. Even if I-64 were removed, the floodwall will still cut off the city from the river. There are creative ways for landscape architects to deal with flood plains, but I haven’t seen any details on how 8664 would solve it. Clearly, investment would be needed to do major alterations or reconstructions on the floodwall, and it may never be the case that people will walk out of their house and be directly to the riverfront as this makes it appear. I’m convinced this is a solvealbe problem, however.

The pictures below show the huge opportunity that awaits. There are literally hundreds of acres of land on the landward side of I-64 that are a wasteland today, but could be reclaimed for park space. Check this out:

Notice the rail lines in the picture. Freight or old streetcar lines? The remains of an old brick street are clearly visible there. JC mentioned something about a Frederick Law Olmsted designed Northwest Parkway, but a mental block prevents me from recalling the details lest I start crying.

There’s plenty of land if you look the other direction too:

That billboard in the background appears to be built on public land. What an insult to the city.

And here’s a last look at I-64 cutting off downtown from the river.

If you want to see what the future could hold instead, check out this one minute 8664 video showing a conceptual view of the new riverfront from the vantage point of a river along a true Riverfront Parkway.

Don’t take my word for it. Do your own comparison at the official web site of the Ohio River Bridges Project and the homepage of 8664.

Better and cheaper. What’s not to love?

Of course, not everybody likes better and cheaper. Highway construction and engineering companies sure don’t. And they carry a lot of political weight. But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was already wealthy before taking office, doesn’t need anyone’s money, and isn’t angling to do anything but serve out his last term as governor and continue pushing for change. He’s brought a keen fiscal eye to the Hoosier State, and 8664 would save Hoosiers a bundle by not having to pay for 50% of a downtown bridge plus 100% of the approach work on the Indiana side. With projects like I-69 running over budget, this could be a great place to save money. Plus, the Major Moves funds allocated to the bridges project are not sufficient to pay Indiana’s $1.2 billion share of the project, period. And 8664 preserves the East End bridge that Indiana cares about and which is a no-brainer.

Gov. Steve Beshear took office at a tough time in the Commonwealth, and I think he’s brought some needed seriousness to the role. He strikes me as the kind of guy who is willing to listen to common sense, particularly when Kentucky has huge budget problems, is already having to cancel projects because of highway funding shortfalls, and which has already mortgaged part of its future with GARVEE bonds to pay for the work it is already doing.

Tolls could bail this thing out, but better than toll money is no money. Just because you’re taking it out of motorist pockets at the toll both instead of the gas pump doesn’t mean it is any less a tax and government expense to build this thing. And 8664 is fully compatible with a toll-funded solution.

The East Enders will never give up in their fight to kill the East End bridge, so obviously nothing will convince them. Anything that makes the project less expensive and thus more likely happen they won’t like.

And of course the Courier-Journal, whose editorial page is effectively the PR arm of the Abramson administration, will never stop beating the anti-8664 drum.

But the majority of the public is not in the construction business or a wealthy resident of Prospect. Polls have shown that the public overwhelmingly supports 8664. It is an idea whose time has come. The choice is clear: more of the same or a bold choice for Louisville’s future. 8664 is certainly not risk free, but it’s a bet I believe is well worth taking.

Friday, June 26th, 2009

“Amtrak on Steroids” is Not “High Speed Rail”

There was a lot of excitement in high speed rail circles when $8 billion in stimulus funds were allocated to high speed rail. The fact that some versions of the new transportation bill would allocate a further $50 billion really got people talking.

However, there’s a growing realization out there of what I’ve long been saying, namely that virtually none of the projects angling for this money are high speed rail at all.

There has been a veritable parade of officials taking trips to Europe to check out high speed rail and tout its benefits to the public. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association put together a trip to Spain for its members. Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin took a trip to Spain as well. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was recently in France and did a photo-op featuring him in the cab of a TGV train.

But the rail systems proposed in the United States are NOTHING AT ALL like the ones in Spain or France. Those system travel at nearly 200MPH on dedicated, fully electrified trackage, with light trainsets, operating with an array of passenger amenities and 99%+ on time reliability. There is a grand total of one proposal in the whole US that is like this, namely California’s.

The proposed Midwest system is typical of what we see around the country. It would operate at a top speed of only 110MPH, half that of Europe, with average speeds much lower. Its travel time would be similar to driving, meaning door to door journey times would be worse. Worst of all, it would be operated by Amtrak.

If you want a 4-5 hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis, you can get it today cheaply, conveniently, and with wi-fi (are you listening Amtrak??????) on Megabus. Indeed, Megabus has proven popular from everyone from 60 year old Moms coming to visit their kids in Chicago to hipsters making road trips. Best of all, Megabus is here today, with no government spending.

If all you want is “Amtrak on steroids”, you’ve got it now with Megabus.

I’m not going to suggest it is totally a bad idea to go with this 110MPH system. There can be virtue in incrementalism and starting small. I personally happen to think it occupies a “sour spot” on the spectrum and is a worst of both worlds solution that both costs a fortune and won’t deliver much in the way of benefits. But I can respect the other point of view.

What I have a serious problem with is labeling this “high speed rail”. Having officials use European systems to sell HSR to the public, then giving them Amtrak on steroids is false advertising. It could ultimately ruin the brand of high speed rail in the United States. By setting expectations so high that they cannot possibly be delivered on by the solution proposed, high speed rail in the Midwest is already set up for failure.

Also, I think this system mistakes high speed rail as a transportation solution with high speed rail as a technical system. Most advocates system to want some type of high speed rail system. So however they have to define it in order to get something funded they can call high speed rail, that’s fine with them. But the scope shouldn’t be a “declare victory” system. The scope should be the benefits.

Given the extremely high cost of high speed rail, I’m not sure there’s a business case for it. However, I can make a prima facie argument for the benefits. But those benefits depend on game changing reductions in travel time, not something that merely replicates what we have today using another mode. We need to focus on the benefits, and from what we’ve seen in Europe and Asia, the benefits from from game changing journey time reductions.

Unfortunately, with Amtrak in the lead, we appear to be headed for another fiasco, no matter how well intentioned the program. President Obama could have high speed rail as a true legacy the way Eisenhower did with the interstate system. But to get that we need a change of direction from the current Amtrak on steroids approach.

I have written extensively on high speed rail, and developed my thinking on the benefits case and the solution in a series of two postings focused around how to connect Midwest cities better with Chicago:

The business case for high speed rail: Metropolitan Linkages
Now real high speed rail has transformed Spain: Confessions of a high speed junky (The Guardian)
The high speed rail solution: High Speed Rail

More reading:

GAO Questions DOT High Speed Rail Strategy (Transport Politic)
The High Speed Rail Game: Is $13 billion and 110MPH Enough? (Streetsblog) – NO

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Building Suburbs That Last #3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees

I consider the suburban decay facing inner ring suburbs across America, especially those of the 60’s and 70’s vintage built on a modern suburban pattern, as one of the key challenges facing urban leaders over the coming decades. I outlined a lot of the case in my review of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia”.

Why is this happening? One big reason cities tend to fall into decline is that they accumulate huge unfunded liabilities, and those liabilities attach to the territory, not the people. This lets one generation of residents rack up huge future bills, then skip town to leave the next generation or those not lucky enough to get out with the bill. It’s the equivalent of being able run up a huge balance on the civic credit card, then pawn the bill off on someone else.

Consider the $1 billion pension time bomb that was facing the city of Indianapolis for its pre-1977 police and fire pensions. I think it’s fair to say that no one who was not yet eligible to vote prior to 1977 played a role in making unfunded promises on the future. Many of the people who did simply moved outside of the district as part of the great suburban migration. That’s why it is entirely proper that the state picked up this cost, so that residents who fled the central city for the suburbs after running up that debt have to contribue towards paying it off.

This problem is more acute in suburbs that fall into decline than it is in cities. City living might always appeal to a minority, but because we are not building many new neighborhoods today, those that prefer urban living have to do it in the city, thus there is built in redevelopment demand. This is not true for suburbs, where there is always a shinier, newer product being built somewhere in the region, without all the legacy problems. To the extent that living tastes change significantly – say, in favor of New Urbanist developments – this only obsoletes older places more quickly. Plus, regions tend to see propping up their central city’s urban core as an imperative, but don’t feel the same way about a random suburb’s problems. Almost all of the serious urban research, thinking, and funding has been oriented towards urban, not suburban problems.

I have a couple of practical recommendations in my previous two entries in this series (see #1 – Strategy and #2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization). The next two installments are more speculative. They would require significant development and piloting before implementation, and would likely require state level legal changes. But we can at least think about them.

These two items deal with preventing the accumulation of unfunded liabilities, and how to partially compensate when they do happen.

Portland, Oregon is famous for its urban growth boundary that restricts urbanized developement to the side of an arbitrarily drawn line on the map. This is a solution that has been proposed to control sprawl in many locations, but I’m not sure it is politically practical in most cases. And I think there is a better way to do it, one I call “The Mother of All Impact Fees”.

Impact fees are fees charged to developers, typically residential developers, to help fund the capital expansion needs of public services such as sewers, parks, or roads resulting from the new housing units that will be added. This can be thousands of dollars per house in total. Also, developers are often required to construct 100% of utilities and infrastructure in the interior of their development, donate land for schools or fire stations, or even do localized road improvements. The idea is that the construction of the house creates a muncipal liability that would otherwise be unfunded without the fee.

There are a couple of problems with impact fees. The first is that they are imposed on a locality by locality basis. Competition is good, but competition can also force all but the most attractive towns to limit their collection in order to entice developers. This creates economic development in the short term, but adds to the unfunded liability balance that will ultimately do in the city. The second problem is that these fees are not nearly high enough.

An externality is a cost or benefit (often a cost) that accrues to someone not party to a transaction, I think even most free marketers would suggest that externalities are a problem. In this case, the unfunded liabilities are negative externalities of development. The developer pockets the vast bulk of all of the profits and benefits flowing from his new subdivision. The residents of the whole town, both today’s and tomorrow’s, and even state and federal taxpayers, inherit the bill to make good on these costs.

Think about a typical rapidly growing suburb such as Westfield, Indiana. Westfield had a population of 3,304 in 1990, 9,293 in 2000 and an estimated 20,459 in 2007. Over 10,000 new housing lots have been approved for construction, though obviously the current recession has affected the timing of actual build. Let’s consider some of the growing pains in a town like Westfield:

  • Updating the structure of local governance to be suitable to a large town, not a small one. (Westfield just went through a town to city conversion)
  • Sewer and stormwater management buildout
  • Water buildout
  • Parks buildout
  • Roads buildout
  • Schools buildout
  • Fire department buildout and professionalization. (Most rural and small town Indiana areas are served by tiny volunteer fire departments at an ISO rating of 9)
  • Police department buildout
  • Library buildout

Some of these, such as sewer and water buildout, often are taken care of at the time of building. It’s tough to build a house without sewer or water service. (New subdivisions on septic service are increasingly rare in Indianapolis these days).

But let’s consider roads. Westfield, by its own estimation, is on its way to 75,000 people. But as a town it has effectively implemented no road improvements. Virtually its entire road network consists of unimproved county roads with narrow lanes, drainage ditches, no sidewalks, poor traffic control, etc. It should come as no surprise that traffic congestion is horrible.

The cost of improving even two-lane arterials is significant. Based on what neighboring Carmel has spent, one could estimate $3.5 million per mile without extensive aesthetic treatments. This is hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded road work.

But that is only half the story. 146th St., the main arterial on the southern border of Westfield, is controlled by the county, which has already spent $100 million or so improving it, with plans to spend another $45 million completing the cross-county widening. Westfield’s Main St. is 176th St., or SR 32, which is controlled by the state. That road requires over $150 million of improvements, which INDOT has not nearly funding it needs to complete. US 31, the main north-south corridor, is also a state road. There is a project in the works to spend $450 million upgrading that to a freeway through Carmel and Westfield. US 31 empties onto I-465 at the south, which also has $650 million in improvements planned, with probably another $450 million needed that aren’t even on the books yet.

It probably isn’t totally off base to suggest that Westfield alone is probably generating a billion or so in road construction needs as a result of its projected buildout. Maybe more. Is it going to build these roads with impact fees from developers? It doesn’t seem likely given that there are over 20,000 people there and we’ve yet to see any serious road improvements. In effect, these developers have been able to get the taxpayers of the future to subsidize their developments to the tune of a billion or more in roads alone, to say nothing of all the other services above. And that’s just to build them, not maintain them.

My proposal is to put a stop to that by charging developers up front the full cost of the total infrastructure buildout their developments create. You could do this in a couple of ways:

  • Do not allow new urbanized development until the infrastructure and urban level services to support it – including macro level infrastructure such as freeways – are in place. Perhaps a minimum level of infrastructure plus a credible and funded plan to get to full buildout would suffice.
  • Take an area like Westfield (Washington Township), do a comprehensive plan, estimate what a full buildout would look like and cost, then divide by the number of projected units and voila, there’s your impact fee.

Nothing against Westfield, which is just playing by the rules it has been given and isn’t a bad place. (In fact, they know they are behind and are pedaling hard to catch up). But the reason development there looks attractive is, in part, because of the artificially low taxes in the now that result from being able to run up future liabilities. Pull the present value of that forward and tack it on the sale price and things look much less rosy.

And many of the purported ills of the older areas people are moving to Westfield to get away from are nothing more than the debts of previous generations of Westfields that did the same exact thing coming due. If Westfield thinks its fate will be any different in 25-30 years when it achieves full buildout and is no longer the great new thing, it is sadly mistaken. Of course, by the then, it won’t matter to the people and developers who got the benefit of 20 years of deferred liabilities. They’ll be on to the next place when things head south.

A policy that prevented towns from being able to run up huge deferred infrastructure liabilities, and forced developers and homeowners to pay for them up front or over some reasonable implementation period, might prove to be the best limiter of sprawl out there.

Such a policy would likely need to be at the state level. This is where the devil is in the details. One size fits all policies that mandated identical infrastructure, etc. probably isn’t wise. We shouldn’t expect every town to by gold plated infrastructure. We should be encouraging specialization and diversity in our suburbs. Also, with much infrastructure in non-muncipal hands, the process would need some work. I’m sure there are plenty of good policy minds out there who could help develop some ideas to take forward to pilot.

More Reading on the Suburbs

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
The Future of the American Suburb
End Property Tax Collection in Arrears

Building Suburbs That Last Series:
#1 – Strategy
#2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

The High Line

I thought I would post a few photos of the recently opened High Line park in New York City. This is a former rail line that was slated to be torn down but has been rescued as an elevated linear park. A short segment of it is now open to the public and I think features a very wonderful design. I can’t wait to visit NYC next so I can check it out. New York City is definitely doing a lot of innovative things the realm of public space, including innovative, forward looking landscape architecture like this, their unique bike rack program, and their new street design manual. Lots of exciting stuff.

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes. If you want to make it happen, do it fast.” – Jaime Lerner, architect and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and father of that city’s world famous bus system.

Brookings Institution Report on Metropolitan Performance

There has been quite a bit of buzz about the Brookings study that was just released tracking the economic performance of the nation’s metro areas. Out of the top 100 metro areas in size, here is how the ones I track measured up on various metrics:

Employment Change from Peak:

  • #20 – Kansas City (-1.5%)
  • #25 – Columbus (-1.7%)
  • #38 – St. Louis (-2.3%)
  • #50 – Cincinnati (-2.8%)
  • #54 – Minneapolis (-3.0%)
  • #56 – Louisville (-3.1%)
  • #59 – Chicago (-3.1%)
  • #61 – Indianapolis (-3.3%)
  • #67 – Milwaukee (-3.4%)
  • #78 – Cleveland (-4.7%)
  • #98 – Detroit (-12.3%)

Change in Gross Metropolitan Product from Peak:

  • #21 – Indianapolis (-1.9%)
  • #49 – Minneapolis (-3.1%)
  • #67 – Milwaukee (-3.7%)
  • #73 – Chicago (-4.2%)
  • #78 – Cincinnati (-4.4%)
  • #79 – St. Louis (-4.6%)
  • #80 – Columbus (-4.8%)
  • #86 – Louisville (-5.2%)
  • #87 – Kansas City (-5.3%)
  • #95 – Cleveland (-6.2%)
  • #100 – Detroit (-10.1%)

Columbus, Ohio was overall ranked the best performing Midwest metro, with Indianapolis and Kansas City next to it in a narrow band.

I find the divergence between employment and GMP interesting. While a better analysis would probably look at hours worked, for a place like Indianapolis where employment dropped much more than GMP, it could be indicative of productivity gains. On the other hand, in cities like Kansas City and Louisville where we see the opposite, is productivity eroding? Employment growth and GMP per capita growth are two of my key indicators of regional economic health.

Check out the study for yourself – it’s easy reading and there are plenty of nice maps.

Top Midwest Twitter Cities

TwitterGrader has its top locations for Twittering. Here is where the Midwest cities ranked. Keep in mind, this is a global rank, not a US rank.

  • #3 – Chicago (Yes, #3 in the world)
  • #21 – Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • #31 – Columbus, Ohio
  • #39 – Indianapolis
  • #44 – Cincinnati
  • #47 – Cleveland
  • #50 – Milwaukee

I find it so interesting that so many different measures tend to over and over again put the same handful of Midwest metros at the top. The “big four” are the Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Twin Cities, with Chicago thrown in depending on what you are looking at (it is either really high or really low, often). KC is absent on this list, but look at the top four.

As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter at @urbanophile.

On Municipal Finance

I noticed in this Q&A from Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman justifying his call for an income tax increase that 42% of income tax payers and 53% of income tax revenue comes from people who reside outside the city limits. That’s a very interesting stat. It is probably helped by the fact that Columbus has annexed heavily and thus has many “suburban” commercial zones like Polaris inside the city limits. I would credit this as a factor for Columbus’ relative success. It isn’t supporting a huge base of poor people, non-profits, non-taxpaying government institutions, and regional attractions on purely its own tax base.

Regional Economic Development

There was an interesting article in the Indianapolis Business Journal this week about the impact of the new Honda assembly plant in Greensburg, Indiana. This bit at the end caught my attention:

[Businessman Steve] Freeman said the company’s white-collar employees have settled in Shelbyville or Indianapolis.

That’s a typical pattern for factory expansions, [economist Morton] Marcus said. The reason is that potential home buyers usually are working couples. They’ll settle where both spouses can find a job.

Marcus said Greensburg may be like Kokomo. When Delphi and Chrysler expanded, professionals settled in Hamilton County.

How you look at this depends on your point of view. You could look at it as Indianapolis skimming off the highest paid workers. Or you could look at it as access to the Indianapolis labor and housing market enabling Honda to locate in Greensburg in the first place. I take the latter view. It’s the same for the plant generally. Indy didn’t lose out on the Honda plant because Greensburg got it. It was never a realistic competitor for that deal. Companies like Honda aren’t locating plants in places like Indianapolis these days. It’s similar for the people. Top professionals want to live in or near big cities, not small cities or towns way out.

What we see here is symbiosis. It’s a win-win relationship. Indiana, Indianapolis, and Greensburg all benefit. The labor force attractiveness of Indianapolis (and in this case, Cincinnati too) creates enough of a management labor pool for Honda to choose to locate the plant in Greensburg, which is great for that town and the whole region. The future of large scale manufacturing growth in Indianapolis is likely in places like Greensburg.

So often there is a disconnect between cities and smaller places that surround them. They either fail to recognize the mutual dependency that they have, or look at it as a zero-sum game instead of win-win.

I have made the case that Indiana (and other states too) need to take a new regional approach to economic development, one rooted in the centrality of large cities in the modern economy. It isn’t just a metro area economy, it’s a bigger economic solar system, with networks between these nodes extending throughout the world.

It is imperative in my view that leadership in these cities create a compelling case for why cooperation is important and sell it to the people all the time, not just when there is something – usually a central city regional asset like a stadium – that people want to regionally fund. Again, I believe the central city, as the big dog, has to lead by getting out and really trying to be of help and service to outlying communities, and make sure it is noticed. Not in a “now you owe me” sort of way, but in an “isn’t this cool” sort of way. I’m sure some of this happens today, but it isn’t well known.

Regions that figure this out are going to outperform in my view. And it is the best way to start helping outlying industrial areas that are really hurting.

Urban Contextualism and Incrementalism

There are some interesting words of wisdom in this blog post from Politics and Place:

I suppose I’ve started thinking about New Urbanism in much the same way I think about Christianity. It’s all about a question of letter vs. spirit of the law. Sure, St. Jane/St. Paul said x, y or z, but I believe both New Urbanism and Christianity suffer from a literal interpretation. We can’t be expected to follow Jacobs’ book to the letter in Duluth or San Antonio any more than we should stone our adulterers. In either case, the dangers of fundamentalism are obvious.

I believe that incremental steps away from McMansion developments should be celebrated. The majority of America’s population has been living in the suburbs for almost 60 years, it’s foolhardy to believe that they will be ready for Greenwich Village tomorrow. Changing peoples’ views about the built environment takes time and incremental steps. So while Stapleton might not be the New Urban utopia, I think it would be unfair to label it as sprawl.

I agree with this. We can’t try to transplant “school solutions” into a foreign context. We’ve got to let ideas like transit take root in the native soil. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.

Also, it’s true we are not going to turn the dial all the way immediately. Also, turning it all the way to hard core urban probably isn’t the right answer. It will take a while to change people’s living habits, attitudes, and beliefs.

Regarding New Urbanism, I think the problem is that the principles of the Charter of New Urbanism have become associated with greenfield sprawl developments, giving it a bad name in some quarters. But the “spirit of the law” as the poster said, is pretty good.

Location Still Matters

@Urbanverse pointed me at this great New York Times piece on why location still matters.

In a business world linked by electronic networks and cheap, nearly instantaneous communications, physical location shouldn’t matter.

But it does.

Aspiring editors still move to New York, home to a huge share of the nation’s trade publishers. Many musicians still pack their bags for Nashville. Would-be entrepreneurs still flock to Silicon Valley, and for those who don’t make the move, leading venture capital firms often come to them, by setting up offices in tech centers around the world to be closer to new sources of talent.

Read the whole thing.

A big challenge for the Midwest city trying to reinvent itself around industries with cluster economics is that the logic of clustering favors a handful, even as few as one, winners. The article cites the example of Facebook moving from Boston (America’s second largest tech hub) to Silicon Valley. There appear to be many financial centers around the world, but as Saskia Sassen demonstrated, these cities compete with each other far less than one would expect. Rather, they are specialized in sub-niches.

I think the points the way. Targeting a broad cluster like “high tech” is probably not going to work. Sure, there will always be some companies since this is a growth area and a rising tide lifts all boats. But you won’t become Silicon Valley. Instead, look for sub-niches you can dominate or whitespace to take over with first mover advantage.

Collaboration and Networks

Ed Morrison has another great post over at Brewed Fresh Daily. (As an aside, I hope I’m not the only one who doesn’t read Brewed Fresh Daily when I read “BFD Learning Moment”. Time for a rebrand?). He was talking about a strategic doing workshop he held in Detroit:

Collaboration is a deeper commitment than most of our participants appreciated. Collaboration is not “knowing” or “connecting” or “networking”. It is not surface. it is not simplistic. It is not easy. It is not an event.

Collaboration is a civic habit. A set of overlapping networks, quickly shared. A pattern of behavior that builds trust and mutual respect. A commitment to transparency and truthfulness. A relentless focus on experimentation, action and learning “What works”.

These features do not simply appear. They must be cultivated. They grow with time.

My impressions — taken from 60 people across the state in just one day — suggest that Michigan has a way to go. There is more grieving to do.

But more important, Michigan needs a break from its past. It’s a truism in economic development that a community or region’s civic life mirrors its underlying economic structure.

In Michigan’s case, both government and civic action are unnecessarily constrained by hierarchical thinking that no longer serves the needs of a younger generation. The sooner Michigan expands the experiments in open collaboration, the better.

This could have been written about anywhere in the Midwest, I think. Something to think about.

Burnham 100

Chicago is kicking off the official 100th anniversary celebration of the Plan of Chicago. Design Applause has a great series of plates from the original document, as well as renderings of the two temporary Burnham Pavillions that are now, I believe, open to the public. Or at least the one by UNStudio is. The Zaha Hadid pavillion is late, I hear. A must see for the pictures.

A couple of samples:

Cincinnati’s New Logo

Drew-O-Rama points us at Cincinnati’s new city logo. Here it is:

Local chatter seems to suggest it is unpopular, and I’d have to agree. This is a pretty weak logo. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. The biggest problem is that it has absolutely nothing to do with Cincinnati. This seems to be a local mental block, as I noticed the same thing with their Agenda 360 plan and Mike Doyle noticed it with their CincinnatiUSA branding. Cincinnati acts like it is embarrassed about what it is. But Cincinnati’s a great city with so much incredible stuff most people don’t even know about. Yes, change is needed there just like everyplace else, but there’s a lot to be proud of and embraced, not rejected or swept under the rug.

Worst of all, the logo was paid for with a $75,000 donation from Macy’s. Somebody paid $75,000 for this!?!? All I can say is, wow. Nice work if you can get it. It certainly demonstrates the public spirit of Macy’s, however.

Lots of good comments on the logo here.

Must Watch Video on Curitiba Bus System

Streetfilms has an awesome seven and a half minute video on the Curitiba bus system. This is an absolute must for any city to study as it explodes the myths around the necessities of rail. It also deals directly with some limitations of the system, namely the fact that it was not designed with bicycles in mind. (Bogota learned from this). Among the lessons are 1) do it fast and cheap (see the quote at the top of this post and 2) it takes a network of services to make it work, not just major spoke lines and 3) do it incrementally. They started with one line and 25,000 daily passengers. Today they’ve got a network with 2.3 million daily rides, way more than the volume of Chicago’s CTA network, which includes extensive heavy rail.

If you don’t see the embedded video, click here. For some reason, streetsfilm videos don’t seem to work when embedded in feeds.

Yes, Curitiba is supposedly now building a subway line. This doesn’t invalidate the bus. Rather, it shows that after 40 years of work, they’ve developed an entire urban infrastructure and lifestyle that supports building subways. It also shows that, even as the poster child for busways, they aren’t dogmatic about that system, but are open to looking for the right solution in the right place at the right time.

National Roundup

The nation’s cities are not getting their fair share of the stimulus.

And, no surprise, the federal DOT’s standards on high speed rail say 110MPH counts. What a joke. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this in certain instances, or that you shouldn’t pay for it out of high speed rail funds. But calling this “high speed rail” is setting an incorrect expectation with the public and could ruin the high speed rail brand in the US. That article has a picture of Sec. LaHood leaning out the window of a French TGV train. But the US system will be nothing like the French one if these standards are to be believed. Setting the pubic expectations bar at true high speed rail in the European sense then delivering “Amtrak on steroids” will, I believe, do irreparable harm to the cause of high speed rail at home.

The New York Times examines the case for working with your hands. And a related piece on digital designers rediscovering their hands.

Lessons from Sweden’s early 90’s economic crisis (via @OtisWhite)

Monocle Magazine’s latest quality of life survey (warning: FT subscription alert). In the US, Minneapolis and Portland got dropped out of the global top 25. (Via NullSpace)

The south is much maligned, so it is useful to see what it is they are actually doing down there. Here’s an interesting interview with Don Koski, a former planner from the Twin Cities, who has been hired to oversee an ambitious multi-modal infrastructure redesign in Ft. Worth.

Featured Site: Archizoo

Archizoo is a great urbanism/design site out of Detroit. Jim Meredith is a former principal at Gensler who now runs his own practice. His blog (and his Twitter feed) is a stream of good stuff around design, sustainability, innovation, Detroit, urban policy, and much more. Definitely check it out.

More Midwest

Why Don’t Ohio’s College Grads Want to Stay? (Rust Wire)

A look at the CTA’s rail system (Tribune)

Re-imagining Cleveland: Audacious…or Realistic? (Brewed Fresh Daily)

Condo Kaboom (The Other Paper) – downtown condo market collapse
Ohio grads take diplomas and run (Dispatch)

Feds give $2B more for Michigan recovery (Detroit News)
Rural Michigan counties turn failing roads to gravel (WWMT)

Broader bridges bill is backed by Clark (C-J)

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

End Property Tax Collection in Arrears

Jim Meredith over at Archizoo bemoans the state of retail overbuilding in America and looks at ways to prevent it. These range from “certificates of need” as some states require for hospital expansion to new zoning standards. Take a look for yourself.

This reminds me that I’ve been remiss in following up on my “Buildings Suburbs That Last” series. So look for more installments of that shortly. This post isn’t per se about that, but does talk about how we discourage overbuilding.

In some states – and I don’t have a full list, but know it includes Midwestern states like Illinois and Indiana – collect property taxes in arrears. That is, in 2009 you are sent the bill for your tax year 2008 taxes. Normally this doesn’t matter to you since you owe taxes every year, but when it comes to newly developed property it does.

When you go out to a cornfield in the suburbs and convert that into houses, the land is usually assessed at a very low agricultural rate. It can take a while for the property to even be re-assessed as higher value residential, then it will be another year or more before the value of that property is factored into the property taxes.

The net result is that when you buy newly developed property in the suburbs, whether for a house or for a new retail center, you are in effect getting a one or two year tax abatement as a reward for building on a corn field. If you had bought and existing home, you’d start paying the full tax value of that home immediately. But by buying a new development, you get a couple of years of farm field taxes. Given the size of many property tax bills, you can see how this encourages sprawl.

I know this effect is real because I’ve benefited from it personally some years back when I purchased a new construction condo in Chicago in a building erected on an old parking lot. This was infill development, not sprawl, but the same principle applies.

As a general rule, I’m not sure we should be encouraging people to build new vs. re-using existing. At a minimum, we ought to at least have a level playing field. In that regard, figuring out how to start prospectively collecting taxes on the fully improved value of the parcel immediately should help to reduce the incentive to sprawl.

This is not my idea, by the way. If the person who gave it to me wants named credit, I’m happy to add to the article.

More Reading on the Suburbs

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
The Future of the American Suburb

Building Suburbs That Last Series:
#1 – Strategy
#2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization
#3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

The Midwest Mindset

A previous posting on attitudes towards change in the Midwest prompted commenter “pete-rock” to email me regarding Michigan football. According to pete:

The University of Michigan Wolverines have since the early 1900s been a dominant team on the college football scene. The legendary coach Bo Schembechler took over the team in 1969 and, while he did not win any national championships during his 20 years there, he did lead them through another particularly dominant and popular era. His teams had a very physical and straight-forward style that basically told opponents, “even if you know what we’re going to do, you can’t stop us.” He always emphasized his talent and power advantage over opponents when possible. After he retired in 1989, he was followed by coaching protégés (Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr) who continued to coach in more or less the same fashion.

Here’s where the “Midwest Mindset” analogy kicks in. Michigan did win a national championship in 1997, but then began a subtle decline over the next 10 years. Why? Many Michigan fans were saying that the game was changing, and the team and coach Lloyd Carr were not adapting to it. Over the last ten years there has been a greater emphasis on player speed in the college game, and less so on size and strength. An emphasis on spread offenses that create mismatches on the field. An emphasis on speedy defensive players that can get to where you want to go before you do. Yet, Michigan was continuing to play the same old way, with steadily diminishing results.

Coach Lloyd Carr retired after the end of the 2007 season. Michigan replaced him with Rich Rodriguez, a far younger coach who had plenty of success implementing a spread offense and fast defense at West Virginia University. Rodriguez implemented his system for the 2008 season, with disastrous results – a 3-9 record, and the first losing season at Michigan since 1967. Rodriguez has been given somewhat of a pass so far, in part because his system was not a good fit for the players he had. He has maintained that once he gets players that fit his system, the results will be better. However, Rodriguez has taken some flak from fans, casual observers and the media for uprooting/disrupting school traditions (one player transferred to uber-rival Ohio State and said Michigan was getting away from its “family values”).

There is some anxiety among U-M fans. Can Michigan succeed with a system that is quite possibly the polar opposite of the template for success that’s been passed down for four decades? If not, can Michigan ever again return to glory? If so, then what does that mean about the way we used to play? I’m sure there is plenty here to explore how the “Midwest Mindset” is coming into conflict with changes to big-time college football.

This reminds me a great deal of Indiana University basketball in the post-Bob Knight era. Knight won three national championship with a style built around team basketball, aggressive man to man defense, and the motion offense – not that dissimilar to Schembechler’s Michigan Way. He also maintained a squeaky clean program when it came to compliance with NCAA rules, and his players had excellent graduation rates. Knight was fiercely loyal to his players long after they were gone, and despite his famous antics and tirades, they were loyal to him in return.

But after then 1987 national championship, the Knight style lost its touch. His teams won games, but struggled in the NCAA tournament. It became more difficult for him to recruit. And as his record deteriorated, he became more vulnerable to consequences for his antics, and was eventually fired.

Knight was replaced with assistant coach Mike Davis, who took the team on a run deep to the title game in the NCAA tournament. This got him a contract. But Davis was a rookie head coach. I think it was a profound disservice to a good guy to put him into that pressure cooker environment. Had he been able to gain experience elsewhere for a while, the same way Knight did at Army, I think he could have been a great top program coach one day. Unfortunately, he was put into that role too soon, and at an impossibly time for anyone really, eventually cracked under the pressure, then left. He was replaced with Kelvin Sampson, a questionable hire who trashed the reputation of the university and its basketball program with his sleazy behavior. Now a new head coach, Tom Crean, has taken over, and we’ll see where that leads. Crean had a disastrous record in his first season with a decimated squad of players.

These declines are noteworthy because they are as much a spiritual crisis as a success crisis. Just like the failure of the Midwest. The old Michigan and IU programs didn’t just win, they won in a style and manner that perfectly fit the character of their state and fans, and which those fans deeply believed was “right way to win”. Now that right way no longer seems to lead to success. But the new ways aren’t embraced, and indeed the transition to new styles and new regimes have been painful and frankly not yet produced results. Both teams have fans looking back to a better era when the world seemed to work like it should and the good guys won.

It is a metaphor for the Midwest economy generally. The agro-industrial economy of the Midwest wasn’t just jobs and economic success, it was a way of life that people embraced and believed was the right way to do business. Financial gimmicks, offshoring, breaking the jobs for life contract, etc. are not just hurting the Midwest, they are viewed as fundmentally wrong. The change in the globalized isn’t just a technical change to be managed to, but a moral affront.

Again, we see various attempts at reinvention, but never totally embraced and none yet showing the results we are promised – at least certainly not for the vast bulk of Midwesterners.

Nostalgia we’ll always have with us, and I’m not totally immune myself. I still think high school class basketball in Indiana is a betrayal. And I say that as someone who came from a graduating class of 50 people. I would rather have won the sectional back in the day, than the state title in a diminished modern era. Bo Schembechler and Bob Knight were giants, legends in their own day, and among the last of that generation of larger than life coaches. Only the octogenarian Joe Paterno clings on at Penn State. It is the passing of an era, and a lot of goodness has been lost.

Maybe if the Michigan and IU can find a way to reinvent themselves on in the athletic arena, the Midwest can figure out how to recreate itself generally. In the meantime, one can look to the way they approach sports to catch a glimpse of the Midwest mindset and dilemma.

On a related note, reader Ironwood sent me this gem:

My long-held hypothesis is that the Midwest constitutes quite probably the most engaged, critical audience for what the coasts generate. If only because we in the midwest tend to LISTEN. Which, as our dads always told us growing up, you can’t listen while your mouth is flapping. A generalization, of course; I’m talking about a segment of the Midwest. But that segment benefits from a little distance from the creative hotbeds, and gives us an irony and perspective missing from the some of the very, very busy, self-absorbed coastal people. This is the double-edged quality of the Midwestern mindset, I guess. The ability to point out that the emperor has no clothes, the absence of self-importance, the humor that can deflate the silliness and grandiosity of a Chelsea gallery owner — nudge it a millimeter and you’ve got defeatism, lack of confidence, phobia about looking foolish, thinking small, not taking risks. All crystallized in that most lethal expression: “Who do you think you ARE?”

Words to think about.

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago – Part 2: The Nichols Bridgeway, Or Re-Imagining Monroe St.

UPDATE: Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin writes today (2009-06-17) about unsafe pedestrian crossings on Monroe St. This is the predictable result of ignoring Monroe St. in favor of the Nichols Bridgeway. However, something that can be addressed to some extent even in the short term and should definitely be included as part of my “Re-Imagine Monroe Street” idea.

AND: Local blogger Edward Lifson interviewed Piano in the Architect’s Newspaper. Piano talks a bit about the bridgeway and Monroe St. See more Edward Lifson writings on the Modern Wing, including great photos, in this roundup.

This is the second of a two-part series on the new Modern Wing. The first installment focuses on the wonderful exterior of the building. This one covers the interesting but problematic Nichols Bridgeway and the building’s street level engagement. I may follow-up with a third segment on the interior at a future date.

As I said in part one, I really, really like the Modern Wing. But there’s one major aspect I think is problematic, and that is the Nichols Bridgeway, a long ramp leading from the ground level in the center of Millennium Park near the Cloud Gate sculpture to the top level entrance of the Modern Wing. You can see it in this picture.

As you can, this is a rather elegant structure, like a super-cool water slide or ski jump. Its top end is supported gracefully by two brackets cantilevered off the side of the building, and there is a long clear span over Monroe St. Not only does the bridge itself offer great views to people on it, it delivers you to a terrace at the top of the Modern Wing offering spectacular views of Millennium Park and the city. Of course, being the era we are in, it is also the entrance to a restaurant. I think it’s a very pleasant stroll from the park to the Modern Wing and have made the journey myself a couple times just to visit the terrace.

There a number of problems with this bridge structure, however. I group them into three categories:

  • Execution problems
  • The visual obstruction the bridge itself creates
  • The way the bridge supports the Modern Wing’s disengagement from Monroe St. and the draining of pedestrians from that street.

The last point made me think about the sad state of Monroe St. through Grant Park generally, the poor access to the Lakefront from the Loop, and what can be done about it.

This photo shows the awesome views of Lurie Garden, the Pritkzer Pavilion, and the Aqua building among many skycrapers to the north. I love how you get a totally different impression of the trellis from above than you from below. Sitting in the lawn you see it arch overhead, but it is almost flat in a way. Here you see it as much more of a dome structure, like the skeletal structure of a more gently curved Mormon Tabernacle or something. Note at the bottom of this photo how the promenade dead ends into a parking garage entryway and the path continues via a diagonal “slip ramp”. We’ll come back to that. A similar view to this one is available from the terrace.

Here is one looking south from the top of the bridge.

A view down Monroe St. west to Michigan Ave. and the skyline.

And one to the east towards the lake. You can also see how anemic pedestrian traffic becomes on Monroe past the bridge.

The views from the terrace are more or less identical to the bridge, so I won’t show a complete series here, but here’s one shot to give you a flavor of it.

Here’s a look up the ramp itself.

As you can see, it is basically just a straight shot. As with the Modern Wing and the Pritzker Pavilion, we are again treated to what I think is an interesting contrast between Gehry’s BP Bridge and this one. The Gehry bridge is a curvy, almost meandering bridge designed for a lazy stroll. It is fairly wide, and features a wooden deck with metal rails. The Piano bridge is straight, functional, a bit narrow, with a metal deck and wooden rails. Here’s the BP bridge for a quick contrast shot.

I happen to think Gehry got the best of this matchup. Though criticized as a bridge to nowhere, or as part of a nefarious plot to build the proposed children’s museum, the bridge serves a functional purpose of creating a protected pedestrian pathway across busy and wide Columbus Drive. It is also just a nice, pleasant path to walk.

The Piano bridge has a couple of problems. The first of these is that its metal decking is very uneven, with lumps and bumps, almost like it is a badly unrolled carpet. Contrasted with the smooth wooden decking of the BP Bridge, this one isn’t even very pleasant to physically walk on. It sways a bit too. Now that doesn’t bother me any – I actually think it’s kind of fun – and I’m sure the bridge is safe, but I’ve heard other people complain about it. Also, there’s an awkward terminus at the lower end. Here’s a picture:

When I saw this, I thought the blank railing at the end was a gate, and that when the bridge was opened you’d just go straight down. I did think it looked odd though and wondered how you would get down. My confusion was resolved when I saw that this was not the actual bridge entrance after all, but that the bridge was actually accessed via an awkward slip ramp at the end similar to the effect I showed above. Here’s how you really access it:

I just think this is very awkward. Moving on behind these execution quirks, we see that the bridge itself interrupts the view of the skyline.

This is a good pivot point into the main problem with the bridgeway, namely the way it and the Modern Wing design hurt the pedestrian experience on Monroe St. Here’s what you see from Monroe standing under it looking north.

Not very inviting to say the least. Turn it around and here’s one view of how the Modern Wing addresses the street:

Not nice. I assume this is some sort of emergency exit, but there have got to be better ways to handle it.

Here we see the view down Monroe St. The change in grade necessitates some compromises. While the landscaping is very nice and the view of the building behind it is quite nice in some ways, it’s never that appetizing to walk next to a concrete wall.

Similarly, the building level is a fairly barren concrete plaza. I think about how huge crowds hang out in front of the Art Institute on Michigan Ave. They aren’t likely to do that here, and it is no surprise to find this space nearly deserted.

And here we see another afterthought of an entryway:

Clearly, Piano made an explicit design decision for the Modern Wing to turn its back on Monroe St. Let’s face it, it’s not a very exciting corridor today. Rather than trying to turn it around and improve things, he decided to simply ignore it and bypass it with the bridge.

The Nichols Bridgeway is nothing more than an open-air gerbil tube. Like all such, it drains people from the street and is an implicit rejection of the value of the streets over which it passes. Also, given its point of departure, it drains people from the south end of Millennium Park as well. Michigan Ave. is packed with people. Crown Fountain, Cloud Gate, the Pritzker Pavilion and other pars of the park are packed with people and energy. Monroe St. isn’t totally devoid of life. These pictures do show people, after all. And a roadway through a park is never going to have the type of street life that a major commercial boulevard like Michigan Ave. would. But I think there was a major opportunity missed to improve Monroe St., add life too it, and generally better connect the Loop with the Lakefront.

The Sorry State of Monore St.

Most people probably haven’t walked along Monroe St. from Michigan Ave. to the lake except during festivals like Taste of Chicago, when the experience is radically altered. Imagine you are a tourist staying at a downtown hotel or are on Michigan Ave. Or you’re a Loop worker. Or a suburbanite who just came downtown on the train. Or live downtown or in the West Loop. Any of these people want to visit the lakefront for which Chicago is justly famous. Here is a sample of what confronts you walking east on Monroe St. from Michigan Ave. to the lake:

  • There is a beautiful garden on the north side of the Art Institute, but no way to access it from Monroe St.
  • The garden is buffered by a stone railing, necessary for the grade change, but it extends above eye level at points such that all you can see is a blank stone wall.
  • A loading dock or service entrance for the Art Institute
  • Train tracks
  • The Nichols Bridgeway view to the north I showed above
  • The concrete wall and barren plaza along the Modern Wing I showed above, plus a matching, even taller and worse concrete wall on the Millennium Park side of the street.
  • A cross-walk at six lane, median divided Columbus Drive, with an unlabeled pedestrian underpass on the north side of the street you probably won’t use since it looks like a parking lot entrance. Plus, the underpass is pretty dreary to boot.
  • Monroe St. is six lanes wide at this point.
  • Past Columbus, there are 30′ wide walks of pure concrete, very badly cracked in many places.
  • If you are on a bicycle, there are no bike lanes, though I suppose with a 30′ or so sidewalk, who needs them?
  • The street lights are old and the paint is peeling off of them. Dittos for the stop light masts.
  • There’s a sad looking cafe on the north side of the street, buffered by a bent over wrought iron fence and chicken wire.
  • Then you are confronted with crossing Lake Shore Dr.
  • Once on the far side, you are in at an access road and drop off lane for Monroe Harbor, asphalt all around.
  • Directly in front of you is a poorly screened chain link fence, surrounding a surface parking lot, which is front of a building. There is no view of the lake/harbor or obvious path to get there.
  • There’s a sad looking hot dog stand (closed every time I’ve been there) with a few Home Depot grade picnic tables next to it.
  • Once you identify the path to the lake, it leads you between a fenced in dumpster and a public restroom that is disgusting beyond belief. I can’t believe the Chicago Yacht Club still has a plaque with their name on it there.
  • Finally you are at the lake.

I’m not going to say this is the worst street ever. There are plenty of work places to be in this world. But this is the Chicago lakefront for goodness sake. This one of the primary corridors people would take to get to the lake from the Loop. Walk out there one afternoon and see a few hardy tourists – but not that many – standing out on that wide, cracked sidewalk with cars whizzing by on Monroe and LSD and it’s pretty pathetic.

(I’m already excessive in length here, but may come back and do a follow-on to this posting with a photo essay of the items I listed above).

Re-Imagining Monroe St.

The Modern Wing was a missed opportunity to start addressing the problems on Monroe St. But even if the Art Institute had taken that as its mission, it wouldn’t have done a lot to move the needle.

To really change the game, I’d propose that the city hold a design competition called “Re-Imagine Monroe St.” that would include the entire Monroe St. corridor between Halsted St. and the Lakefront. This would be intended to generate a concept design for the corridor that would:

  • Significantly upgrade the pedestrian quality of experience across the entire route
  • Improve connectivity between the Loop and the Lake
  • Link commuter rail stations to the Lake
  • Create a protected bicycle corridor to channel West Loop and West Side bicycle traffic safely through the congested Loop
  • Create a new, more forward looking design standard for the city, bringing innovation to the design of public space in the 21st century.

This is almost fully consistent with the Chicago Central Area Action Plan. And where it is not, it represents a straightforward extension to the Plan, not a conflict with it.

Areas where this competition would be in direct support of the Plan:

  • Quality of design and space. “Set the highest standards for urban design as an essential ingredient in ‘bonding people to a place.’”
  • Streetscaping and signature corridors. “Identify and improve key pedestrian corridors using CDOT streetscape and lighting program, focus on signature east-west streets and linkage of key destinations.”
  • Monroe Transitway. Monroe St. through much of the Loop would already be torn up to build this subway system linking the West Loop Transportation Center to the lakefront. This is a logical part of that project since Monroe St. will be disrupted anyway.
  • Improved connections to the Lakefront. “Identify strategies to better connect the Lakefront to all neighborhoods and business districts within the Central Area.”
  • West Loop Bicycle Station – This would be a Millennium Bike Station type facility in the West Loop. That’s nice, but how do you connect this to the Loop and the Lake?
  • Enhanced east/west streets and corridors. “Balance Chicago’s rich heritage of signature north/south streets and corridors by improving a series of east/west streets and corridors.”
  • Innovative green streets. “Utilize state-of-the-art techniques such as permeable pavement, rain gardens, and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting standards for green street and alley improvements.”
  • Grant Park north improvements. “While the exact scope of this project has not yet been determined, the project will generally include reconstruction of the obsolete Monroe Street Garage and other public amenities associated with the garage structure. Open spaces and park facilities potentially effected by this project include Daley Bicentennial Plaza/Fieldhouse, Cancer Survivors Garden and Peanut Park.” The fact that the garage will be torn up opens some possibilities I’ll discuss below.
  • Kennedy caps/ped crossings. These projects would enhance pedestrian crossings of the Kennedy Expressway by cantilevering wider sidewalks off the existing bridge piers and putting caps over the freeway between Monroe and Washington.

As you can see, all of this is right down the rails of a Monroe St. corridor project. There are two primary exceptions. The first is that the Plan calls for Randolph St. and Congress Parkway to be the signature E-W streets. It’s hard to argue with those, but Monroe St. is a perfect complement, located almost entirely between them, and possibly the most centrally located street in the Loop. It also balances the one way west Randolph corridor with the one-way east Monroe.

The other is that the Plan calls for bike lanes on Washington/Madison, not Monroe. However, I’m not convinced traditional bike lanes are the right answer in the Loop. When designing the Indy Cultural Trail in Indianapolis, Brian Payne and the team came to the conclusion that only experienced bike riders were willing to use bike lanes in the CBD. Certainly families with children wouldn’t. The high volume of traffic and pedestrians discourages use, even with lanes. Indeed, you see in the Loop today mostly bike messengers and other hardened cyclists, not casual riders. So I think a more aggressive approach might be needed.

Both of these would make well-fitting additions to the Central Area Action Plan.

I would envision a design that would address some of the following elements:

  • A dedicated bikeway between Halsted and Lake Michigan. This would be fully barrier segregated using rain gardens or other landscaping from both traffic lanes and pedestrian sidewalks. It could either be a two-way bikeway, or utilize a one-way street pair. This would be the main protected corridor through the Loop for bicyclists. If you are in the West Loop today and want to get to the lakefront trail, how do you do it? There may be a straightforward way, but I don’t know an easy one that doesn’t involve on street riding on a major, busy thoroughfare. By taking a lane away from traffic and giving it to bicycles, you create a safe corridor that can be used to funnel bicyclists from the West Side and the commuter stations across the Loop safely. As to the idea that we can’t take a lane away from cars on Monroe St., I’d note that there is a parking lane on much of it today. If you’ve got room for on-street parked cars in the Loop, then I’d say be definition you’ve got room for people. One thing that did not jump out at me in the Central Area Action Plan was how to bridge the barrier that the Loop core creates to non-hardened bicyclists. I mentioned the Indianapolis example before. New York City and other cities are also creating fully separated bike lanes. Chicago’s bike lanes are great to be sure, but Chicago is no longer at the state of the art in bike accomodations.
  • Narrow Monroe St. through Grant Park. I don’t believe closing the street makes sense. But there’s a big difference between having a street and having a six lane street. Monroe St. should be designed for average day peak volume, not super peak of the peak volume for events.
  • Enhanced pedestrian comfort at the Michigan Ave. crossing.
  • Decking over the Illinois Central tracks on the south side of Monroe up to the Art Institute bridge. This could be a sort of extention of Millennium Park, a type of public plaza, or other things. But I think it could be a super-cool space. Imagine some type of transparent flooring, for example, so that you could watch trains go by under your feet or something.
  • Significant enhancement of the Monroe/Columbus intersection. I’ve got two possible approaches. One is to close the intersection and grade separate by depressing Columbus below Monroe. If the Monroe garage is getting torn up anyway, this is an option to look at. I’m sure there are water table issues, etc. but they are solvable. The best part of this option is that you can raise the grade of Monroe to reduce the “concrete corridor” of retaining walls that exist now, and use built up landscaping in Grant Park on the east side of Columbus to better integrate the grade transition. The other option is to conver this intersection to a grand, European style roundabout like the ones you find along the Paseo del Prado in Madrid.
  • Improved pedestrian access across Lakeshore Drive.
  • Slightly shifting the Monroe Harbor entrance, possibly converting to right in-right out, ripping out all the garbage there, and having a pedestrian promenade directly to the lakefront.
  • Creating a new design language for Chicago. There’s a story that Mayor Daley took a trip to Paris and, after looking around said, “Why can’t Chicago look like this?” Upon returning, he really prioritized streetscape, park, and other improvements. Chicago is known for its “make no small plans” mantra, but the real secret sauce of the city isn’t a showplace like Millennium Park, wonderful as that is. Rather, it is the extremely high quality of space on the average street of the city. But putting median planters all over the place, new street lights, bike lanes, new sidewalks, traffic calming devices, etc. Chicago has dramatically upgraded the quality of space in a city where it was already high to begin with. Mayor Daley deserves huge credit for this and it is clearly one of the things bringing people back to the city. People want to live in a beautiful, inspiring environment.

    However, I think perhaps the city has taken Paris a bit too literally. It has adopted a sort of cutesy, retro-Victorian design that, while it looks good, is generic, backwards looking, and not really befitting a city with Chicago’s heritage. The Modern Wing and Millennium Park are showing that Chicago can do contemporary design too. Chicago should update its design language to create a more modern, forwarding looking design, one that is rooted in the city and its essential character but repositioned for the 21st century not the industrial age, and which is truly unique to Chicago. With its incredible scale, Chicago can easily afford to do custom instead of going off the catalog, particularly if cost of fabrication is a parameter of the design. Again, New York City is ahead of the game here. They are experimenting with modern, slim line LED street lights, and the landscape architecture on the High Line is very forward looking and innovative. Chicago is staying with a far too conservative, play it safe design approach.

    I have said that Chicago needs to start setting the agenda and defining what it means to be a successful city in the 21st century. To figure out how to do in this era what it did in previous ones with industrial innovation, the skyscraper, the futures exchange, etc. What are Chicago’s big ideas and how can it exploit them to create a form of urban innovation that will differentiate the city in this century? One of the key opportunities to do this is in the design of its public spaces and streets. And Monroe St. is the perfect place to start. One source of that innovation may be in the conversation between the old and the new. That architectural conversation is already played out along Monroe St. It is home to many historic buildings as well as modern and post-modern classics like the Inland Steel Building and the Xerox Building. It is the place where the contemporary Millennium Park meets the classicism of the City Beautiful era Grant Park south. That creates a tension that can be exploited and synthesized into the new. The city should seek a design for Monroe St. that a) plays of the relationship between old and new b) brings innovative, bold, forward looking new ideas about what street and public space should be in 21st century c) is uniquely Chicago d) is suitable to be deployed at scale, potentially a modified form, elsewhere in the city as a new design language and standard. I don’t really mention green design here because frankly that’s a transitional notion. There is no more green design, there’s just design. It’s all green or soon will be.

These are just some thoughts. I’d like to see what the city could potentially get if it unleashed the powers of the local and international design communities to make something like this happen.

I realize I went a bit far afield from the Modern Wing, so thanks for bearing with me as I talked about it a bit in the broader urban context.

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

New Economy Pipedreams

Every single city and state it seems wants to both turn itself into the new Silicon Valley and the next biotech center. The New York Times this week runs a great article showing the futility of these efforts for the vast bulk of cities:

At a recent global biotech convention in Atlanta, 27 states, including Hawaii and Oklahoma, paid as much as $100,000 each to entice companies on the exhibition floor. All this for a highly risky industry that has turned a profit only one year in the past four decades.

Skeptics cite two major problems with the race for biotech. First, the industry is highly concentrated in established epicenters like Boston, San Diego and San Francisco, which offer not just scientific talent but also executives who know how to steer drugs through the arduous approval process.

“Most of these states probably don’t stand much of a chance to develop a viable biotech industry,” said Gary P. Pisano, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Science Business: The Promise, the Reality and the Future of Biotech.”

“You can always get a few top people,” Mr. Pisano said, “but you need a lot of critical mass.”

Second, biotech is a relatively tiny industry with a lengthy product-development process, and even in its largest clusters offers only a fraction of the jobs of traditional manufacturing. In the United States, only 43 biotechnology companies employ more than 1,000 people.

Very true. There certainly can be some additional winners in the space, but they are likely to be few. Every city and state has at least one decent medical school and some companies in the sector. It can be easy to delude yourself that you are differentiated or have unique capabilities. A more realistic view would take a hard look at this.

It may indeed be worth having a foot in the life sciences game, but I would also look for other sectors where you can complement it that with niches you can get first mover advantage on and dominate. I’ll again recall the motorsports example in Indianapolis as a good one.

The NYT article is an absolute must read.

On a related note, a Pew study shows above average job growth in the green tech sector in Michigan. This is clearly good news for a state that has taken an economic beating recently.

The challenge for the Midwest in green tech is two-fold. First is that it is yet another sector everyone is taking. Second is that green tech is only a transitional field. As with the internet and business, in a future there won’t be “green technology”, there will just be technology. All of it will be green. Similarly for manufacturing, energy, etc. The field as it exists today will likely dissolve as it is subsumed into traditional industries.

Shrinking Cities

Could the Obama administration put major federal dollars behind a shrinking cities plan? The answer may be Yes according to an article in London’s Daily Telegraph. I encouraged just this in my article about Detroit. There is simply no way most Midwest/Rust Belt cities are going to grow fast enough in their urban core to regenerate all the neighborhoods that were once there. All but a handful have vast tracts of blight across large swaths of their inner cities, often in what Jane Jacobs called “gray belts” of old, single family homes. Particularly for those that were built after the 1920’s, they are often smaller, with obsolete floor plans, often not that well built, and are in major decay. They don’t function as urban districts and probably never will without major retrofits. Cities are going to have to target specific nodes and corridors for redevelopment and consciously decide to forego investing in others if there is any hope of moving the needle. This is what I’ve advocated in Indianapolis, calling for a “100 Monument Cirlces” strategies focused around traditional neighborhood commercial nodes linked together to form chains to downtown and each other.

This might seem like a cruel or heartless policy, one unfair to those who don’t live in favored districts. And I can’t argue against that. It’s true to a great extent. But that’s also the reality of the situation. The alternative may be the further decline of the entire city and and even bleaker future ahead. There are no guarantees this strategy will work, but the alternative looks much worse.

More on the Grass Roots

Following onto my series on the new grass roots (see part one and part two), Ed Morrison of open source economic development fame has some interesting warnings for Indianapolis over at the IBJ’s News Talk blog.

He reminds that virtually all of the projects involved bricks and mortar. They’re things, not people. He thinks the power brokering and equivalent of smoke-filled rooms that revitalized the city since the ’60s will never work with arguably more important — and intractable — social problems like school dropouts.

Indianapolis mastered its strategy before there was an Internet and power began to disperse to more people, Morrison says. Now, the city needs to learn to take advantage of networks of people — not necessarily an easy transition.

As someone who’s long said that cities are about people, not just buildings, I couldn’t agree more on the bricks and mortar part. You need the physical to be sure, but if you don’t have the people, it ultimately won’t matter.

Similarly, I don’t think there’s an either-or on networks. To me the best mix is a strong combination of top-down and bottoms-up. The civic leadership strength of Indianapolis is still an asset I believe, particularly if marshaled in the service of the hard changes that continue to be necessary to take the city forward. This needs to be complemented by new networked capabilities, however.

Regional Infighting

Jim Russell talks about zero sum economic development thinking in the Midwest. The money quote:

Cleveland is at war with everywhere not Cleveland. Dayton is at war with everywhere not Dayton. The same is true for Pittsburgh and every other Rust Belt city. As long as this parochial perspective holds, Atlanta will continue to win.

National Roundup

Here’s a presentation with some really great descriptions of various public plazas in the United States today. It includes Cincinnati’s Fountain Square. (Via Union Station Advocates in Denver)

Complaints about the new arena design in Atlantic Yards in the NYT

The High Line is now open. This is an innovative park in the bed of a former elevated railroad that has an excellent and forward-looking landscape design from what I’ve seen. I can’t wait to check it out in person.

A positive look at NYC’s new street design guidelines.

The Economist profiles municipal budget deficits in the United States.

A very interesting, creative take on what the future could look like by Amsterdam’s NL Architects. (Via @acceptgiro)

Featured Site

I want to suggest everyone surf over and check out a new blog called Human Transit. It’s run by Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant who worked on the plan for the Minneapolis system. He’s down in Australia-New Zealand these days, but the blog is going to be US focused. I very much like his rational and balanced approach. Here’s an excerpt from his manifesto:

My goal is not to make you share my values, but to provide perspectives that help you clarify yours. Much of my work has been about analyzing public transit problems to separate the technical question from the question about values. To take just one example, most transit agencies will tell you they want maximum ridership, but they usually also operate some low-ridership services that meet other goals, often to provide basic mobility to transit-dependent people who live in low-ridership areas. Every agency decides, explicitly or not, whether to spend a dollar on building high ridership or to spend it on serving people who really need it. Stated this way, this is a question of values. It has no technical answer, because it’s a question about what your community feels is most important. My role is to point out the question itself, show how it’s lurking inside debates that may seem to be about something else, and help you form an opinion based on your values.

Check it out.

More Midwest

The Infinite City (A Chicago Sojourn)
Chicago’s recent bike parking challenges (Vote With Your Feet)
Mag Mile facing a glitz gap (Crain’s Chicago Business)
CTA ridership drops in the recession (CTA Tattler)

Revitalizing Over the Rhine – Part One (CNU)
Revitalizing Over the Rhine – Part Two (CNU)
$120 million restoration of Union Station to begin (Columbus Dispatch)

Ohio Supreme Court rules against city residency requirements (Plain Dealer)

Creative economy in Central Ohio (Community Research Partners)

Urban villages in Detroit’s future? (Free Press)

Urban entryways to Indiana cities deserve our attention (Morton Marcus)

It’s about time we all loved Louisville (Business Lexington)

Beyond the rust belt a year later ( – Via RustWire

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Creative Destruction Is Real

Transformation comes from entering new markets and leaving old ones. Companies rarely transform themselves through cost cutting or improved operational effectiveness. Operational effectiveness is necessary to compete, and world-class operators can create competitive advantage, but in almost all cases, operational effectiveness is insufficient to stave off disruption and drive long-term competitive advantage.” – Scott Anthony

We read a lot, and in many cases see people celebrate, the idea of “creative destruction”. This notion is most popularly associated with economist Joseph Schumpeter. The concept is that innovation brings improvements to the world and fuels economic growth, but it also undermines existing ways of doing things. For example, we see online music distribution disrupting traditional CD marketing, with serious consequences for the music industry.

The positives are very real of course. In aggregate we are much better off for all of the advances that we’ve had as a country. People who think life was better in the past, I think, mostly think life was better in a past that never actually existed. Or they imagine that they would be part of the more privileged in that past without considering that they might be among the unlucky. But there are many very negative consequences to innovation too. Entire industries that used to exist now no longer do. Companies that failed to reinvent themselves for a new era often failed. This had both a financial and human toll. There’s no need for Midwesterners to dwell too much on this as they know it all too well from personal experience or front line observation.

What’s true for companies and markets also seems to be true of places as well. Most Midwestern cities would appear to no longer have that much economic relevance. They are sustained primarily on inertia and legacy economies that are in a state of decline. The challenge for them is to reinvent themselves for a new century and a new world.

This isn’t easy. Reinventing yourself requires letting go of what it is you identify as core to what you do today – never easy in the best of times, and particularly difficult in a place like the Midwest. Midwest cities need, more than anything, a game plan for making themselves relevant to the people and businesses who will be fueling the 21st century.

Many of them are attempting to do that by upgrading urban amenities. The Florida school suggests that one needs to build inspiring environments to lure people in. Then those people make your economy go. I’m sympathetic to this to a point. Over the long run in the modern economy, jobs follow people. The Sun Belt should have taught us that if nothing else. And of course I’ve championed better quality of space for our cities.

The problem is that biking trails and lanes, art galleries, light rail lines, etc. are really just the new ante in a respect. They are not going to create a differentiated environment to turn around decline, except perhaps on a relative in region basis. Consider: if you value these things, what Midwest city is going to be able to supply them in a better manner than places like Portland, Denver, or even Atlanta or Dallas? Not likely too many of them.

Back in the era, businesses used to re-brand their logos with .com at the end of them – I recall Neiman’s shopping bags for example – to show they were with it whether they were or not. Today, there’s no such thing as a “ strategy”. Use of the internet is simply built into the fabric of business.

This is the real challenge. To come up with the right approach to create a viable niche the modern economy. Without this, too many places are simply going to end up like buggy whip manufacturers. Cities, like companies, can become obsolete. And the toll will be large in human, financial, and environmental costs.

It is imperative that there be a vision for change that is serious, relevant, and championed by community leadership. This can mean political leadership such as that from Mayor Daley of Chicago, who has been a tireless champion and promoter for Chicago’s transformation. It could also come from other sources too, such as leadership from a motivated business community. But whatever the source of it, it has to come from somewhere.

Some might say that we can’t afford to finance this type of transformation. Two responses. The first is that we can’t afford not to. With many of our cities and states withering away, the alternative is simply not acceptable. The other is that it doesn’t have to cost a huge amount of incremental money. There’s no doubt that financial discipline, and the effective and efficient delivery of quality public services is important. It’s like Indiana Gov. Daniels recently said, “I guarantee that the principles of fiscal caution and conservatism have not gone out of style.” His disciplined approach put Indiana in the best fiscal condition in the Midwest. It’s probably the only state not looking at major tax increases and/or service cuts – meaning it might be one of the few places able to invest, as it is doing with the Major Moves highway plan, for example.

The answer is not to simply throw money at the problem. Actually, we’ve been pouring money into cities for a long time, often doing more harm than good. Some cities may need to increase service levels and spending. Others might choose to spent the same or even less. But the key is to spend well, to make sure that we are investing in the service of transformation and not just spending for the sake of doing something. And with the level of investment we’ve seen in the last decade or two – much of which did in fact go for good things – I think most cities have proven that they can figure out how to find the cash for worthwhile endeavors. By all means we should be looking at ROI, however.

Whatever the individual strategies they choose to pursue, the cities of the Midwest need to step up to the challenge of transformation, lest they find themselves creatively destroyed right out of economic relevance.

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.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures