Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
I read articles out on the net with the general theme of claiming that a cabal of planners is conspiring to force us all to move back into overcrowded tenements in order to recognize their dream of reurbanizing America. There’s no doubt that plenty of progressives write about how people ought to more or less be forced back into the city. And I’m sure in some places there are planning rules designed to achieve this effect, like urban growth boundaries. But if you ask me, the practical reality in most of the United States is exactly the opposite situation. Virtually every piece of planning regulation I see acts to discourage urbanization and especially to reduce densities below market demand.
If you want people to live more densely, no nefarious planning rules are necessary. In fact, simply remove a lot of the ones we have and American cities would get much more dense in a hurry. The free market wants more density.
If you look at zoning laws across America, almost all of them specify maximum densities, such as residential units per dwelling acre, that put a cap on buildout. Additionally, there are a host of other planning regulations such as minimum parking requirements, setback requirements, etc. that have the same effect.
The truth of this proposition can easily be verified by simply showing up at your nearest neighborhood meeting or planning hearing when ever a new development is proposed. Almost inevitably, the developer wants to put in a certain number of units, and the neighbors think it is too many. Frequently, developers are forced to scale back their projects in the face of objections.
And this isn’t just in the suburbs. Nor just in smaller cities. This affects even larger and nominally very progressive cities too. Chicago, for example, has down zoned extensively in the city. Neighbors complained about densification, such as by replacing two story, two unit buildings with four story, three unit buildings, and got large tracts of popular neighborhoods down zoned. In a previous era tony Lincoln Park saw the development of many high rise apartment buildings, including ones on neighborhood commercial thoroughfares like Clark St. It seems unlikely these will be permitted again. Minimum parking requirements have turned much of the city into strip mall nation.
Consider even ultra-progressive Toronto. A recent proposal for a 42 story high rise condo building with no parking was recommended for a “No” vote by planning staff. The staff was actually overruled on this one – so far. But again, it seems the planners are on the pro-car, not anti-car side here.
Bigger cities can survive this perhaps. But smaller cities are often devastated by it. For example, an anti-density mindset in Indianapolis has rendered most of the central city, even those areas nominally revitalized, sterile. Many neighborhoods have tidy rows of well kept and attractive single family homes, just like you would find in any Indiana small town, but few pedestrians and few businesses that survive without relying on suburban patrons or commuters. The reduction in density forced on developers has also led to much of the downtown housing stock being unaffordable by local standards since each unit has to carry a lot more land value.
Developers are in business to make money. They obviously have some reason to believe that the market will absorb more density and less parking. They certainly aren’t proposing things out of any purely altruistic motives. Now, certainly some of the initial proposals might be something the development company itself never had an intention to build, all the better to give away in the form of concessions as the planning gauntlet ballet plays itself out. But there is no doubt in my mind we would frequently see greater density if we only allowed the market to operate. No heavy handed planning required.
Sunday, September 27th, 2009
This is the fourth installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. Other installments are:
- Part One: Building the Vision
- Part Two: Raising the Bar on Design
- Part Three: Cost Containment and Governance
- Part Five: Getting It Done
This piece focuses on the $35 billion question – how to pay for it. Next up: getting it done, followed by a wrap-up.
If transit today is underfunded, how can we expect major improvements out of our agencies? The answer is, we can’t. That’s not to say that the CTA can’t and shouldn’t improve. It should, and I’d argue it has been in the recent past. But we’re not going to change the game, to go from good to great, without a lot more money. So, where can we get it?
First, let’s start with the fact that the CTA does not control any material funding lever except fares, which are already high. The remainder of the CTA’s money, save for some minor advertising income and the like, comes from a mixture of federal capital aid, and taxes whose rate is set by state law. So any change in the funding situation will require legislative action.
Second, the CTA, Metra, and Pace are required by law to achieve 50% farebox recovery. This might not sound like much, but is much higher than most transit systems. Portland, for example, only has about 20% farebox recovery. While the CTA, as a big city system, might be expected to be higher, 50% is probably still too high. Incidentally, there are only two transit systems in the world that break even or turn a profit: Singapore and Hong Kong, two island city-states, and I don’t even have the latest data on them.
Third, the CTA is burdened with innumerable unfunded mandates from the state and federal government, including free rides for seniors and other discounts.
Fourth, the CTA is caught in a big pension vice. Its pension system was vastly underfunded, until it borrowed money to top it off – with repayments that comes right off the top out of the operating budget. The Illinois constitution prohibits the impairment of any pension benefit already earned.
A Fixed Cost System vs. Variable Revenues
A transit system is more or less a fixed cost system to operate once you decide on services levels. That is, the CTA decides how much seat capacity to put on the street and rail lines, and the cost to operate it is more or less fixed regardless of how many people actually ride.
However, the CTA’s tax revenues come from two principle sources: sales taxes and real estate transfer taxes. Both of these are highly cyclical. And where we are in the cycle, those revenue streams have declined massively, putting huge holes in transit budgets across America. The fact that the CTA is so dependent on fares is actually a plus right now, since fare revenue is fairly short term stable, at least in contrast to other revenue streams.
If you are going to fund a fixed cost system with variable revenues, you had better have a healthy reserve account for a rainy day. Chicago’s regional transit systems do not, which is why there are repeated “Doomsdays” as revenues decline.
You Have to Pay For It Yourself
So where is the money going to come from to improve and operate Chicago’s transit system? At the end of the day, Chicagoans are going to have to use their own money to do so.
I find it interesting that most local transit advocacy focuses on getting more money from Washington and Springfield. While a Chicago-heavy White House with Democratic control of Congress might enable something to happen there, I’m not holding my breath.
Consider that there are only a handful of cities with older systems like the CTA that need upgrading. That right there creates a numbers game problem, particularly in the Senate. Likewise, historically Springfield has done little to help. Even the recent $25 billion state capital plan included a comparatively small amount for transit.
Most importantly, other cities around the country are paying for their own transit. In city after see we see transit levies placed on the ballot to raise funds to construct and operate new light rail lines and other systems. Last November, for example, the Seattle area voted to raise its own taxes in order to collect $30 billion over the life of the tax for transit improvements. This is in an area only about a third the size of Chicago.
This also creates problems in Congress. If every other city is voting to raise taxes to invest major local dollars into transit capital, why should Chicago get a pass? Also, this goes right along with the heritage of the Burnham Plan. Chicagoans voted dozens of times to allow bond issues to finance the major public works programs coming out of that plan.
The answer to me is pretty clear. To really change the transit game in Chicago means putting a tax on the ballot for the people to put up or shut up on whether they actually want a first class transit system.
Parameters of the Financing
Before getting to the specific measures, I’d like to propose some basic things to use the money for.
First, I’m assuming there is that compelling vision from part one to get people to buy into the system. This probably has a mix of near term and long term items, tangible and conceptual items. That means there is probably a phasing that needs to be figured out. I would suggest that it would be a limited number of phases, with a pretty beefy first phase. If asking citizens to vote on a tax increase, they should get something pretty big and visible out of it. Also, you don’t want to go back to the well too many times. On the other hand, you can’t expect people to buy a pig in a poke either, so it probably can’t be everything in one vote.
With that backdrop, I would suggest the a ballot to raise taxes with the proceeds to be used for:
- Establishing a CTA operating reserve of $500 million, with parameters to make sure it isn’t rapidly drained and never replenished. Metra and Pace need reserves as well, though potentially we’ve reorganized our governance at this point, remember?
- Rolling back CTA fares to $2 and eliminating transfer surcharges.
- Providing additional operating assistance and reducing the required farebox recovery percentage.
- Funding debt service on a bond for a fairly healthy first phase of work. I would suggest something in the neighborhood of $15-20 billion. Potentially the actual program could be bigger when combined with federal assistance or other revenue sources such as existing TIF’s.
Sources of Funds
Typically, transit bonds are backed by increases in the sales tax. However, given the sale tax dependency of Chicago transit today, and the high Chicago sales tax rate and associated political drama, this may not be realistic. Where then could the city look? Here are some ideas:
- Land Value Tax. A land value tax is a tax not on dirt, but on a physical site. This does not include any improvements made to the site, such as buildings. This is an attractive form of taxation for a few reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t distort production. If you tax something, you get less of it, but since the surface of the earth is already fixed in extent, this isn’t a problem here. The marginal supply of new sites is zero no matter what. Also, it encourages people to put land to good use. Today, if someone builds a skyscraper downtown, their “reward” is a huge tax bill. But if someone tears down a historic building and puts in a surface lot, his taxes go down. That makes no sense. A LVT discourages land banking and speculation, and encourages people to invest in their property. And, the value of a site is really not a function of what any individual person does. Rather, it is a result of overall community growth and investment. This is in contrast to the value of a building, which is principally a result of what the owner does. Consider the value of the Chicago Loop. Now consider the value of the Chicago Loop without transit. The enormous site values in the Loop were created by transit, so why not capture for transit the value created by it? I can’t do this topic full justice here, but suffice to say there are many reasons why, if you have to have a tax, a land value tax is the best way to go. Its principal downsides are a lack of familiarity and a lack of experience in implementation, which would doubtless result in some bumps.
- Congestion Charges/Tolling. This would involve something along the lines of converting the freeways in the city into tollways, using the proceeds to fund road maintenance and operations, and also transit. It could also be used for congestion management purposes. This would require federal rule changes and no doubt much political difficulty. I do not believe a London style congestion charge around the Greater Loop area is feasible.
- Automobile surcharges. This could include items such as additional registration fees or parking taxes.
- Income taxes. Illinois income tax rate at 3% is not that high on a comparative basis. It remains to be seen where it will be after the legislature finishes addressing budget deficits, but this is one possible source of funding as well.
I would suggest that a land value tax is the best approach, but that the income tax based approach is probably the most straightforward and easiest to implement. I don’t have the time right now to do the math, but it should be fairly straightforward to calculate the supplemental rate needed to raise the types of funds outlined above.
Chicagoans may not go for this, but I do not see any other realistic alternative to raising major funds other than local dollars. Possibly the Olympics combined with a major push from the Obama administration could pry some serious federal money loose, but it strikes me that the President is, rightly so, focused on national policy, not one particular city’s transit system.
Fundamentally, if Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Charlotte and many more places can do it, I don’t see why a truly world class city like Chicago can’t step up to the plate and do what needs to be done, particularly when the need is evident and when you have that vision in place and the other elements needed to convince the public.
Next up, Getting It Done.
Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)
Friday, September 25th, 2009
My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “Pittsburgh Renaissance?” and is a look at the Pittsburgh transformation story. You’ve probably seen one or more national media stories talking about the Pittsburgh turnaround and touting that city as role model for the rest of the struggling Rust Belt. I examine that proposition and come to the conclusion that while the Pittsburgh renaissance story is overblown, there is definitely legitimate progress there and hopeful signs for the future. I also look at whether or not Pittsburgh is a model.
One of those national media stories was a recent piece in Forbes called “Pittsburgh? Yes, Pittsburgh“. I recommend checking this one out since I’m quoted in it.
If you want to keep track of the Pittsburgh story through the blogosphere, the place to look is Mike Madison’s Pittsblog. Another great blog with a more wonkish take is Chris Briem’s Nullspace. And of course you already know the Pittsburgh story from the diaspora point of view from Jim Russell’s Return to Pittsburgh.
Speaking of Pittsblog, Madison recently completed an Urbanophilesque ten part examination of the Pittsburgh comeback. I’ll link to his series below, but first want to give my take on the matter of Pittsburgh’s “grit”. There’s a meme out there that Pittsburgh pulled through because of the unique grit and tenacity of its residents. Madison seems to think this is vastly oversold and I probably agree. However, there is something legitimately different about Pittsburgh. It’s what I label in my article, for lack of a better term, “provincialism”, and it is something you see in almost all the old middle America river cities. Pittsburgh’s got it, so do Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. I don’t know St. Louis or Memphis as well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you see it there too.
Provincialism in this case is all about attachment to a particular locale, a sense of shared history, identity, and tradition, and of course, a half-remembered, half-imagined greater past. It manifests itself in all sorts of good and bad ways. You see it in unique local traditions, local cuisine, and local dialects. You see it in old families and old power structures and social markers. You see it in a sort of reactionary arch-conservative social state, even in places that are nominally blue. Low immigration and a very high percentage of people who’ve lived in a place their whole lives are also a hallmark. The river geography also led to stunning views, and often fragmentation into large numbers of dense, distinct neighborhoods. And of course it fractures the towns along geographic lines.
In Pittsburgh, you see this in yinzer dialect and cookie table tradition at weddings. In Cincinnati in Cincinnati style chili and local institutions like the Charter Party. In Louisville it’s about where you went to high school. Cincy and Louisville both exhibit big civic fractures, Cincy in its east side-west side divide, Louisville in its “ends”. I think this provincialism is one reason why Madison, Indiana, once the largest city in that state, preserved its old center intact as one of America’s most important historic districts. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also seem to have suffered less than most regional cities from urban demolition.
I do believe this provincialism is one key to the Pittsburgh story. It creates emotional resonance for a place, even where people left. If you look at why, for example, Louisville and Dayton took such different trajectories, among them has to be the love of place that is so prominent in Louisville. Of course, there’s a down side too. It creates a short of haughty self-regard and smugness, and a resistance to new ideas and new people. Like most things, this provincialism is a double-edged sword.
Here is the story on the Pittsburgh turnaround from three of its best bloggers. First, here is Mike Madison’s series:
Chris Briem takes a look at this over at Economy.com in “The Decline and Rise“.
And Jim Russell’s take on the Pittsburgh turnaround is a New Geography, “Hyping Pittsburgh: With the Global Economy in Dire Straits, Hell With the Lid Blown Off Never Looked Better“
For another view, see “Five Things That Helped Pittsburgh Turn the Corner” over at PopCity.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
What will it take to get large numbers of people to move to central cities? Much has been made of the back to the city movement, and indeed we do see core population growth in many places, such as Atlanta. But in the Midwest most of our urban cores are radically underpopulated and the trickle back to them isn’t enough to really pump life into them. For example, a few hundred people per year have been added to Indianapolis’ Center Township recently. That’s a great reversal of a decades long downtrend, one to celebrate, but also one that is far too low to make a big impact. Even in Chicago, which has seen a huge resurgence in urban living by the upper-middle class, the city’s population is basically flat while exurban Kendall County is the fastest growing county in the entire United States. How can we take this nascent urbanist change to the next level?
I linked before to a discussion on the need to create a new version of the American Dream that is urban, not suburban in nature. Unfortunately, there are many problems with the way the urban lifestyle is sold in America. First, urban advocates tend to assume that the virtues of urban living are self-evident. Then, when people fail act as they expect, blame nefarious forces. Clearly, there have been big subsidies to suburban living and such, but urban advocates often have made a weak case and seem to believe they don’t actually have to sell people who may be unfamiliar with city living on it. There’s an old saying, “telling’s not selling” – simply reciting talking points isn’t getting the job done.
Also, much of the call to return to cities is based on doom and gloom. If we don’t all radically change our lifestyles the planet will end or some such. Fear mongers vie out do each other in describing how urgent the cause is. Alas, as Alan Deutschman’s “Change or Die” article demonstrated, even when faced with the prospect of their own literal, physical death, most people don’t change their ways. And while there has always been an apocalyptic, sackcloth and ashes streak running through American history, Americans are relentlessly optimistic people. People want “It’s morning again in America” or “Yes, we can”, not an “era of limits”.
Also, so much urbanist rhetoric is heavily didactic. Here’s a common phase, “We need to shift the culture.” But what is implied by the statement? Among other things, the speaker positions himself detached from those he wants to influence, occupying a superior plane. Someone saying this obviously doesn’t think he needs his own culture shifted – that’s for someone else. Again, there’s a saying that “Until you meet someone where they are, you have no right to lead them somewhere else.”
So we’ve got to take a different path to create a new, positive aspirational narrative about the good life in America, one based around urban living, that we can convince a large number of people to buy into. I won’t claim to have it figured out yet, but I wanted to set some parameters around what I think it would include:
- A Truly American Dream
- Primal Human Aspirations
- The Facts on the Ground
- The Natural Advantages of Cities
- Institutions of Cultural Transmission
A Truly American Dream
By this I mean simply that it is a vision rooted in our own essential history, culture, geography, etc. The Futurama vision of suburbia did just that. A vision that attempts to say we should live like European villagers is probably not going to play here. We don’t think it is right to impose our culture, values, and history on the world – though our marketing machine has done a good job of selling a lot of American brands – so it makes no sense to expect foreign values to be applicable here. Yes, there are some commonalities among peoples of the world, but also a lot of diversity as well. We need a vision that is recognizably, proudly, and quintessentially American.
Primal Human Aspirations
Any positive vision of the future needs to take account of the fundamental needs and common aspirations people have for themselves and their family. You can think of this in terms of adequate food, shelter, and security, that is, the basics. But there are potentially many other things, including:
- To enable one’s children to achieve a better life for themselves than their parents
- To advance one’s economic condition and status
- To find meaning in life
- To be part of something greater than oneself
- To feel above average about one’s social position
- To play
- To have a place to call home
- To have tribe to call our own
- To find happiness, eudaimon
- To find one’s soulmate or partner in life
- To compete and win
- To find adventure
- To have the feeling of self-determination over one’s own life
Think of all the archetypal desires. Marketers figure out how to tap into these to sell all sorts of things. Part of the suburban dream was its ability to be sold as a vehicle for the achievement of these aspirations. Today, for example, the suburbs are seen as the locale in which we can provide children with the best possible upbringing and chance to succeed in life, have our own private yard, etc. Once cities played this role, and often still do for immigrants. How do we create a view of the city as the premier place in which people can fulfill life’s ambitions? This is what will ultimately sell people on it.
The Facts on the Ground
Cities are great – obviously I love them. Perhaps we love them too much though. Like with our own kids, maybe the faults and warts of city of life are invisible to us. Or we’ve come to appreciate them. Maybe others don’t. We have to be clear eyed and realistic, and see the city not through our own idealized lens, but from the standpoint of a suburbanite who, though perhaps not ideologically opposed to cities – forget trying to convince those people – has little experience of it, and possibly negative or skeptical views based on a life in the suburbs. These people can be convinced, but aren’t going to overlook problems. Let’s consider a few:
- School quality. Yes, perhaps the diligent parent can find a good school in the city, but let’s admit it, it’s harder work. Average suburban school quality is better, no question.
- Crime. Urban crime rates are higher than suburban ones. Yes, there is crime in the burbs. Yes, the worst urban crime is often confined to select neighborhoods and the drug trade. But again, facts are facts, and anecdotes confirm what we’re inclined to believe.
- Taxes. They are often, but not always, higher in the city.
- Large, impersonal government that is difficult to affect, especially compared to a smaller suburb. When I shot that video with Mayor Walling, he gave me his card, but jotted something down on it first. It was his cell phone number. The mayor of Flint gave me his cell phone number, and invites the world to email him suggestions. What are the odds I’ll ever even shake hands with the mayor of Chicago? (Chicago attempts to address this problem through its ward system.)
- Decayed infrastructure. This isn’t true everywhere, but again, while many cities have great infrastructural legacies, their streets, sidewalks, sewers, and parks often have vast backlogs of repairs needed. Suburban infrastructure is often newer and better – at least in the short term.
- Obsolete housing stock. For every Queen Anne or Italianate gem waiting to be fixed up, there are tons of tiny plywood shacks on slabs from the mid-century period that need a good dose of the bulldozer. Older homes have charm, but often lack modern floorplans, need major upgrades, aren’t as energy efficient, etc. Especially Midwestern cities are built like this.
- Environmental problems. Brownfields, lead paint, lead soil, combined sewer overflows, proximity to heavy industry, you name it.
- Income redistribution or the fear thereof.
- Housing costs. In some, but not all cities, housing is extremely expensive. In Chicago, for example, 53% of renters spend more than 1/3 of their income on rent. (In others, housing is extremely cheap – a big plus)
We need to look at every aspect of the city and ask what needs improvement, how it might fit into a vision if it were improved – what would life be like in the city if we fixed the infrastructure, for example – then what we need to do to address the problem, and how we spin it in the meantime.
There are all sorts of other facts that should be taken into consideration:
- Only 27% of American adults have a college degree. Visions focused around, to borrow a phrase, the “creative class Christmas list” aren’t addressing the majority of the market.
- The median household income in 2007 was $50, 233. Again, that’s for an entire household. And by definition 50% of households make less than that. Think costs don’t matter? Think again. And think of ways to create or highlight aspects of city living that are “free”.
- Real household income has flat lined
- Average household sizes are much smaller than they were when urban population hit its peak (so if you want to recapture peak, for example, you need more dwelling unit density)
- Most cities are not built anything like NYC, Chicago, SF, Boston, or Philly. At least some version of the new vision must be applicable to places Columbus, Grand Rapids, and Omaha, that is, the to the majority of American cities. As someone concerned about the Midwest, this is of particular note to me.
Again, if we want a broad based dream, we need to take this into account. Some of these are bad for traditional urban visions that only cater to the upper stratums of society. Others may be good for cities such as increasing immigration.
There are all sorts of things going on out there in the world that affect this. We don’t know how long they will last or what they will ultimate result in, but many of them are quite positive for cities:
- Greater concern for environmental matters
- Increasing immigration
- The fragmentation of the great American common culture into niche markets
- The advance of technology
- An era of increasing rapidity of change
- The rise of the knowledge economy
- Changing household composition
In particular, I think the era of the single “great American Dream” and mass uniformity is increasingly irrelevant in light of these macrotrends. This could be very good for cities indeed, particularly if they recognize that there will never be just one definition of the good life anymore, but a multiplicity of definitions. The old mass market suburban dream of old is probably less relevant to the market than ever.
The Natural Advantages of Cities
What are the natural advantages of cities?
At least, that’s what someone told me they are, and I think it’s a good list to start with.
To that, I might add Brand, as core cities generally have very powerful brands versus the suburbs.
Institutions of Cultural Transmission
I’m sure there’s a better phrase for this. For me, it is a sort of catch-all for everything we need to think about in terms of communicating the story and creating spiritual resonance. Think about:
- Myths – the stories we tell about this place, the people, its founding, its history. Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus – or so the story goes. It doesn’t have to be true, it just be believable and impart the lessons we care about.
- Rites of Passage and Other Rituals. Think about the old days of women going downtown shopping in their white gloves, and the elegance and nostalgia that image creates in our mind. What are the new uniquely urban rituals we can imagine that would create an emotional pull to this place? One real example from today: newlywed couples taking a drive around Monument Circle in Indianapolis, beeping their horns.
Think about this in the suburban context. Then re-imagine it or or re-market what we already have in an urban one.
Again, I’m not trying to give the Answer, only create a framework for thinking about it, and only the start of one at that. For any city struggling to attract residents back to places still down 50% from their peak, these are the things that ought to be thought about. The good news is that I don’t think we need to convince everyone that urban living is for them. If we just convince some people we could really move the needle in a lot of these smaller cities that still suffer from weak core vitality. Even a move of just 25,000-50,000 could make a huge difference in many of these places.
Sunday, September 20th, 2009
Detroit gets almost all the national press in Michigan. While Detroit certainly deserves coverage, sometimes one can get the impression that Michigan = Detroit when in fact there is much more to the state.
I got to check one other city out last week when I spent two days in Grand Rapids as part of the CEO’s for Cities Velocity program. I referenced this before when linking to Carol Coletta’s op-ed about creating a new narrative of an American Dream, one rooted in an urban, not suburban setting. As with most good discussions, I learned a lot, but also came away with a whole new set of questions and things to ponder along with the progress made. Much more to say on this upcoming.
But I wanted to highlight a couple of Michigan related items today. First, you may recall the name Dayne Walling from a Slate article I linked to before about the race for mayor of Flint, MI. Well, Walling ended up winning the election and attended this event as well. He was kind enough to record a short statement talking about the readiness for change in Flint, its challenges, and his plans for the city. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here).
As he says in the video, Mayor Walling is very open to ideas, so be sure to send them his way.
As for Grand Rapids itself, any resident of a small Midwestern city is likely to know the meta-story. Namely, it’s a much more interesting place than its reputation would suggest. Grand Rapids is the largest city in Western Michigan. It was originally settled by the Dutch, who logged trees and grew produce to ship across Lake Michigan to Chicago, though it also grew to have industry, especially furniture manufacturing, along with some automotive and other things.
The industry is mostly gone, and Grand Rapids has suffered for it like most Midwestern cities. But there’s a lot more to the story here. The region maintained a lot of its Dutch roots and character. There are still plenty of Dutch names around, extended families are still important – many of them can apparently trace their lineage back quite some time back to the Old World, there’s a certain thrifty state of mind, and enormous charitable giving and volunteer spirit. The city is still more oriented to Chicago than Detroit.
One thing you immediately notice about Grand Rapids is that it preserved a large chunk of its building stock. This is true even outside downtown. Many old factories and warehouses have been restored and repurposed. I visited no fewer than three of them. Here’s one such, though it doesn’t look like it. It’s the headquarters of the local Catholic diocese.
Grand Rapids is home to a culinary school, which perhaps has a bearing, but there appear to be an abundance of quality restaurants there. I know the food I ate was excellent. Grand Rapids also seems to punch above its weight in green building as well. There are 44 LEED certified buildings in Grand Rapids, giving it the 8th most such buildings of any city in the country. It’s the only city in the top ten that isn’t a blue chip brand you’d expect.
Here’s one of them, the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s the only LEED Gold certified museum in the world.
Grand Rapids also has a sleek new JW Marriott hotel I was fortunate enough to stay at. I think you are getting the picture. This is a bigger and more sophisticated place than you might credit.
Here’s a peek at the skyline from the interior of the art museum:
People relaxing in a public plaza. You can also see some of that preserved building stock here.
There are definitely a lot of interesting things happening in Grand Rapids. Two of the big local companies are Amway and Meijer. The families behind those businesses, as well as other local philanthropists, have put tons of private money behind revitalizing Grand Rapids.
One of the current projects that has come out of this is the Art Prize. This is pretty big news so you may have heard of this one before. It’s an open art competition that anyone can enter with a first prize of $250,000 cash, making it the biggest art prize in the world. The only real requirement is that you find a local venue in Grand Rapids to partner with to show the art. This attracted a large number of artists as you can imagine. It all goes on display Sept. 23 to Oct. 10th, so if you were ever thinking of visiting Grand Rapids, that would be a good time to do it.
The name “Grand Rapids” might conjure up some majestic images of nature. Alas, the reality is much more tame, but there is a small river running through town. Here’s a shot of it with some art and an outdoor cafe along it. I’m told there’s good fishing in this river too.
Grand Rapids looks to be the emerging hub of Western Michigan. As I see it, the city will have to overcome a couple of structural challenges to really take off. One is that it is just a bit too small. While there is a goodly population in the extended region, the core of Grand Rapids and its MSA is a bit smallish at only 776,000 people. Ideally it would be more like 1.2 million to have minimum scale. You see the challenges in the small number of local flights and such. Also, Grand Rapids is off the beaten path. With Lake Michigan creating such a huge barrier, Grand Rapids is a detour from almost anywhere. It’s not on the trade routes.
I barely got to scratch the surface of Grand Rapids. It was my first trip, but I hope not my last.
Saturday, September 19th, 2009
The Urbanophile on Smart City Radio
I am one of Carol Coletta’s guests on Smart City Radio this week. This is a great program and I’m happy to be a part of it. There are tons of archived segments online with all sorts of great guests and discussions. My episode page is here, and you can also listen via the embedded player below. I talk about many of my usual themes, including transit in Chicago, talent attraction, Detroit, and the impact of Generation Y. My segment starts around 25:30, but I’m sure you’ll want to listen to the whole thing.
Federal Urban Policy
This week I attended the Metropolitan Planning Council’s annual luncheon. Their guests were Adolfo Carrión, Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Lisa Jackson, EPA Adminstrator, Shelley Poticha, a senior advisor at HUD, and Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation.
They made a number of wide ranging comments, but a few things stuck with me. One was Adolfo Carrión talking about how the Obama administration wants to establish more direct relationships between cities and the federal government. He particularly cited how federal funding routed through state governments often gets diverted to rural areas in amounts disproportionate to their population, need, and economic impact. I thought back to a situation earlier in the stimulus cycle where the Ohio Department of Transportation withdrew $100 million from a critically needed project in Cleveland at the same time it was sending $150 million to build a bypass around a town of 5,000 people. Clearly, if nothing else, states are just another bureaucratic layer, so bypassing it should be good for efficiency. Here’s an article where Sec. LaHood talks about the same thing.
Another item was affordable housing and how cities, especially now that they are becoming more popular, are increasingly out of reach of many people who might want to live in them. The feds want to start measuring affordability using a combined housing + transportation cost measure. Again, we’ll see. I would like to have heard more about the conundrum that progressive policies sometimes contribute to this unaffordability. Even in progressive Chicago, more than half of all renters pay more than a third of their income in rent.
Lastly, Sec. LaHood was fired up and enthusiastic about high speed rail. He was visibly animated when talking about it. At one point when asked a question on another topic, he said, “I want to talk about high speed rail, so I’m going to ignore that question.” And, “High speed passenger rail is coming to America.”
The MPC also gave two awards at the event. One of them was the Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning, which was given to Metropolis 2020. George Ranney accepted the award on behalf of the organization, and made a couple of interesting statements. One, he said that they would be unveiling a major and controversial proposal for overhauling public transit in Chicago. I look forward to hearing about that. He also issued a forthright condemnation of public corruption in Illinois, to which we can all add an amen.
America 2050 High Speed Rail Plan
America 2050 did some research around city pair demand to draw a phased map of high speed rail routes in the United States. Here’s the static version. There is more on their site.
United States Bicycle Route System
You might think cross-country biking is crazy, but keep in mind this was put out by the Adventure Cycling Association.
Brookings: Great Lakes Cities in the Recession
The Brookings Institution has a report out looking at how the 21 largest metro areas in the Great Lakes region are faring during the recession. Their conclusion is that the impact has been highly varied across the region. Here’s their map of how the Great Lakes metros mapped into national performance quintiles:
The map shows what the report stresses, namely that Pittsburgh is a particularly good performer in this recession, as is Des Moines.
The Top Urban Thinkers of All Time
- Jane Jacobs
- Andres Duany
- Christopher Alexander
- Frederick Law Olmsted
- Kevin A. Lynch
- Daniel Burnham
- Lewis Mumford
- Leon Krier
- William H. Whyte
- Jan Gehl
This is a user vote poll, so YMMV. Also, I saw some organizations campaigning for people, so I’d take any result for a living person with a grain of salt. I saw that someone actually added me to the ballot as a write-in and I got seven votes. While I wouldn’t put myself in the top all time list, I appreciate those of you who expressed your support. Thank you.
CNN had an interesting segment called “City Visions” where a few architects and others gave their ideas for what future environments might look like:
Personally, I thought the first dude’s city looked like an overgrown, abandoned city from one of those dystopian sci-fi flicks. (h/t @Bright_Builder)
If you don’t read GOOD magazine, you should, and you should be. The do some interesting graphics that, if sometimes you’d like more clarity and less frosting (Tufte:minimize non-data ink), are nevertheless super-cool to look at and make some great points. This isn’t one of their originals, put they pointed us to it anyway. It shows the change in percentage of people working in various occupations over the last 150 years or so. The change itself is the message.
National and International Roundup
David Byrne talks about his perfect city. (WSJ)
Witold Rybczynski makes the green case for cities in the latest Atlantic Monthly.
The Guardian reviews “Wrestling with Moses” and gives a balanced view of the Jane Jacobs legacy.
Rust Wire looks at Rust Belt cities learning from Europe in revitalization. Torino is profiled.
Dallas opens the first phase of its Green Line light rail.
The Columbus Dispatch looks at the 3C rail line proposal.
More Indianapolis Roundabouts
The Indianapolis region is a national leader in the deployment of roundabouts. The Carmel program to build six roundabout interchanges on Keystone Ave. is the biggest deployment of these to date in the United States. Now, Hamilton County apparently wants to get in on the action with SR 37.
This project is a no-brainer and I’ve advocated it many times on this blog in the past. INDOT plans to, at some point in the far future, widen SR 37 to six lanes in Fishers and Noblesville. Rather than that, I propose that:
- INDOT re-route SR 37 along SR 13 to I-69
- INDOT relinquishes the current SR 37 route to Hamilton County
- The segment of SR 37 between I-69 and SR 32/SR 38 inclusive is converted to a limited access parkway with roundabout interchanges.
- INDOT funds 50%, and Hamilton County, Fishers, and Noblesville equally split the other half.
I estimate the cost of this, assuming no mainline reconstruction, at around $150-$175 million if done like Carmel. I say do it now, do it fast, get the benefits, avoid the inflation. Have INDOT issue negotiable IOU’s if it has to. The current plan will have this road as a total parking lot future. Fix it before inflation makes it cost prohibitive.
Missing the Bigger Picture in Cincinnati
@_miller pointed me at this article in the Cincinnati Business Courier about talent attraction. A consultant hired by the city says that “affordability” is the city’s biggest asset and that “Tri-State’s message should be that the region has big-city amenities, and young people can afford to live here.”
This misses the mark badly. Yes, affordability is part of the equation for cities in Cincy’s size class. But you can’t hang your hat on that. Riddle me this, how does affordability convince someone to pick Cincinnati over Louisville, Indy, Columbus, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Nashville, Charlotte, Austin, Kansas City, etc., etc., etc. all of whom can offer the exact same value proposition of “big city amenities at low cost”. If Cincinnati were the only low cost city in America, this might work, but it is merely one among a huge number.
Maybe Cincinnati should instead look to areas where it can really differentiate itself: the combination of geography; top notch high culture institutions; a San Francisco-like mix of density, hills and historic architecture; the unique regional culture, etc. And look at what it a) needs to change and b) add to the mix to be attractive. And of course this says nothing about the actual market Cincinnati is trying to address.
I’ve seen this movie way too many times before. A balanced scorecard type benchmark is conducted that finds some pluses and minuses but overall decides that the community in question is somehow the best, notwithstanding that there is really very little materially separating it from the others on the list.
Cincinnati’s got a spectacular story to tell, but “affordability” isn’t it. Time to go back to the drawing board. Agenda 360 would be better served simply perusing the archives of Urban Cincy.
Here’s some globalization and industry restructuring in action. American Airlines is cutting 50 flights from St. Louis at the same time it is adding 50 flights at O’Hare.
City peddles $40 million bike path (Crain’s) – fixing the lakefront bike path problem at Navy Pier and the Chicago River.
Chicago high speed rail bid going well officials say (Greg Hinz @ Crain’s)
Chicago’s technology future falling short on focus, leadership (Greg Burns @ Tribune) Related: Illinois’s so-called tech leaders have failed the state.
Meeting on proposed passenger rail from Cleveland to Cincinnati (Plain Dealer)
Michigan’s year of reckoning isn’t over (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Lilly pain could be shared by Indianapolis (Indy Star)
Tour sizes up sites for downtown convention hotel (KC Star)
Green Bay roundabout proposal raises fears tipsy fans will fumble (JS) – First time I’ve heard the “drunk drivers won’t be able to navigate it” argument. Only in Wisconsin
Will economic crisis breed government innovation (Milwaukee Talkie)
Streetcar plan aims at eastside commuters (JS)
August Wilson Center for African American Culture opens its doors (Post-Gazette)
Highway 40 workers see fewer jobs ahead (Post-Dispatch)
St. Paul prepares for land grab along Central Corridor route (MPR)
Thursday, September 17th, 2009
Columbus, Ohio is a very successful city that has benefited from a lot of great policy over the years. But I’m seeing some ominous signs that the city of Columbus is setting itself up for trouble down the road by pursuing revenue from outside its borders at the expense of internal and especially core development. There are lessons here for any city struggling with regional finance, so let’s take a look.
Columbus is by far the strongest big city in Ohio. One reason for this is that city leaders long ago had the foresight to require that anyplace that wanted to get water from the city had to agree to be annexed. Ohio law is very favorable to annexation when a city is supplying utility service. So while geographically small Cleveland and Cincinnati became encircled by suburbs, Columbus was able to keep expanding. Columbus does not have a city-county merger in effect, but has annexed the majority of Franklin County and even parts of several other counties, taking any number of major “suburban” malls and office developments inside its borders.
Now, however, annexation has slowed to a crawl. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the city has only annexed 14 acres this year. As recently as 2002, it annexed 2,123 acres. Suburban development hasn’t stopped. The city has just stopped annexing. Instead, it is pursuing a strategy of allowing surrounding suburbs to annex land, but using the lever of its water utility to get tax sharing and compensation if jobs move to the new development from the city.
In effect, Columbus has decided it is no longer worth directly developing and administering new territory. Instead, it is adopting the strategy of empire. That is, it will allow “colonies” to develop land and manage their own affairs, as long as they agree to send “tribute” back to the imperial capital in the form of tax sharing. Instead of legions of troops, the city is using its water utility as a hammer to secure these deals.
And that’s not all. The city derives significant revenue from an income tax. An incredible 53% of all income taxes collected by Columbus come from non-residents. This shows the extent of the imperial analogy. Columbus is sustained by revenue from outside its borders. It should come as no surprise then that the city turned to an income tax increase – which non-residents who pay it couldn’t vote for or against in the referendum – to bridge a deficit caused by the recession.
To be direct, Columbus appears to have become dangerously dependent on income from non-residents and businesses outside the city limits. While there appear to be good regional relations today, the edifice of regional revenue collection is being built on feet of clay. Eventually people in surrounding cities will get around to questioning these arrangements. They will start asking why they are exporting all this revenue from their residents. The leaders who negotiated revenue sharing agreements in good faith will leave office to be replaced by others who may think their town is getting played as a chump. One of these days the colonies are going to rebel.
When that happens, it could get ugly. Eventually the whole affair could become quite poisonous, as it is in Cleveland. It should be noted that in this approach to revenue sharing, Columbus is actually imitating Cleveland. Cleveland used control of the Metropolitan Planning Organization to deny permission to built an interstate interchange in Avon (which was to be paid for by a developer) until Avon agreed to a tax sharing deal. If the Columbus agreements have been less acrimonious, it likely because generally good relations exist today, the disputes are over contiguous territory, and the weapon at Columbus’ disposal is different. The results, however, are the same.
This also creates not just the seeds of regional discord, but also generates big financial incentives for people to figure out how to beat the system. If you are a surrounding town or county, you are likely highly motivated to lure regional jobs to your community, not just because that’s good in its own right, but because you can capture the income taxes that come with them and stop exporting all that revenue to Columbus. It could also promote leapfrog development to discontiguous suburbs who have their own water utilities and aren’t beholden to Columbus.
Indeed, we see a foretaste of things to come in one of these revenue share agreements. Dublin agreed to a revenue share agreement with Columbus in exchange for water service to strengthen its had in connection with an annexation battle over disputed territory with Marysville. Marysville sees Dublin getting all this development, sees Columbus using extra-territorial water service as a lever of power and says, “Why not us?” Marysville has its own water utility and is now extending it outside its borders in order to establish its claim to territory. I expect this is only the beginning of these types of disputes.
While it is busy negotiating these agreements with suburbs, Columbus’ core is weakening. The Toledo Blade did a series on the downtowns of Ohio last years. Their findings on Columbus showed that downtown employment declined by 16% between 2000 and 2005. This decline is true of all major Ohio city downtowns, but is troubling nevertheless. Columbus’ fiscal health may look ok because of all the outside revenue it is managing to capture, but ultimately a city can’t be strong if it doesn’t maintain core vitality.
Clearly the health of the central city and urban core is of concern to the whole region. Yes, central cities often have big legacy liabilities; troubled school districts, a disproportionate share of the region’s poor, and other urban ills; and have to provide roads, police, and other services to large numbers of people who visit or work there but don’t live in the city. Commuter taxes are often seen as a way to equalize this and help keep the central city strong.
I’ve always been a bit down on commuter taxes. Unless you have a one of a kind downtown like Manhattan – which Columbus does not – you basically set up an incentive for not just residential flight, but business flight. Is there a better way?
I’ve been thinking about principles by which cities might best engage in regional revenue raising and sharing. These represent a definite work in progress, but I thought I would share them:
- Try to make regional taxation truly regional and uniform across the MSA
- Avoid one way revenue transfers and bi-lateral agreements where possible
- Use regional revenue sharing to build bridges and bind the city and suburbs together around common interests
- Regional revenue should imply regional governance
- Avoid ownership claims to revenue slices where possible
How might this work in practice? I would suggest that a model might be regional taxes to support regional amenities directly. There would appear to be any number of institutions that or types of services that might apply:
- Stadiums and convention centers
- Tourism marketing
- Zoos, museums, or performing arts groups
- Transit systems
- Welfare or other social services
The idea would be to transfer responsibility for some of these items to a regional authority with regional tax support and governance. Most of these are heavily concentrated in the central city. So potentially there’s a net flow of tax revenue into the city. But there are clear benefits to the suburbs as well, and they have an ownership stake in the system. (Some services such as welfare, indigent health care, and other social services for the poor might be better simply funded by the state)
There are plenty of great examples of this around the country. Airports, transit agencies, and port authorities are commonly administered this way. MPO’s are by definition regional (though the governance of these is often very bad – the subject of a future blog post).
Of course there are potential downsides as well. Regional agencies are often run by appointed boards and technocrats, creating a democracy deficit and lack of accountability and transparency. Also, people fear losing influence over local affairs since a large and remote organization is in control. Legitimate concerns, but ones that can be addressed. The devil is in the details as always. We’ll never get it perfect and we’ll always have to fine tune and be vigilant.
Whatever the case, I think this model is better than simply expecting other jurisdictions and non-residents to keep shipping tribute back to the imperial capital in perpetuity. If it stays on its current path Columbus may one day find that it got more than it bargained for with these clever deals.
Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Continuing my series on taking Chicago’s public transit system to the next level, I wanted to address a few miscellaneous topics before moving on to the matter of how to pay for it. For those of you who did not see them already, click through to read part one on building the vision and part two on raising the bar on design.
I mentioned in my previous installment how we need to raise the bar on the design of the system. While some of this would be nearly free, other items, particularly L stations, would appear to legitimately cost a lot more money to do right. How do we reconcile this?
In the spirit of Burnham’s “more study, not more money” quote, I’d like to suggest we need to take a serious look at how to drive step-change reductions in the cost of heavy rail projects. Consider this: the proposed Red Line extension to 130th is 5.3 miles and $879 million – a cost of $163 million per mile – nearly $21,000 per new daily rider. This is for a line with limited ROW needs. And my numbers are very generous, since they are current year, not construction year numbers, and they exclude a $200 million yard reconstruction that is part of the project. Frankly, at those rates, highway investment actually starts to look like an attractive option. IDOT’s Dan Ryan reconstruction, which included adding a lane south from 67th or so to 95th, was about the same the cost as this proposed extension.
The proposed Orange Line proposal is even more expensive on a per unit basis. It is $455 million in current year dollars for 2.26 miles – a cost of $197 million per mile. This is for 7,800 new boardings per day, or over $57,000 per boarding (likely around $100,000 per passenger assuming most people make round trips).
I’ve read of estimates up to $4 billion to renovate the North Main embankment. Just that segment would cost more than the Kennedy reconstruction + the Stevenson reconstruction + the Dan Ryan reconstruction + the Kingery reconstruction and widening + the recent resurfacings on the Edens and Calumet Expressways + the Ike bottleneck reconstruction from a while back – all combined.
I’m not saying anyone is making these up or anything, but the numbers themselves just seem way out of line.
Let’s consider some rail transit construction costs from around the world. Seoul, Korea is building a heavy rail route called the New Bundang Line as a public/private partnership. It will cost 1.1809 trillion won ($966 million) for 18.5km (11.5 miles). This is a cost of $84 million per mile – far less than Chicago’s expansions. And the New Bundang line is partially underground, requiring tunneling, and is a fully automated, driverless system with state of the art technology too. Read more here.
Madrid too has a much lower cost approach. Its Metrosur line (admittedly opened in 2003) was euro1.55B ($2.25B) for 40.5km (25 miles), including 29 new stations, six of which permit transfers with commuter rail. This is $90 million per mile, again, far less than Chicago’s proposed expansion even if you inflate the numbers to current dollars. Again, this included extensive tunneling (full on boring, not just cut and cover) in terrain where that was very difficult. See here for more info on the line, or this excerpt from an article titled simply, “Madrid confirms its low cost approach“.
It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. I don’t think there’s anything unique to Chicago about this. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain is not exactly a low cost country. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the ADA.
Any dollar we can take out of the cost of these systems is found money. It can either be invested back into quality of design, used for more projects, or returned to the taxpayers and riders.
I would propose that we create some sort of a task force with a mandate to drive significant reductions in the cost of construction – I’m talking a target of 25-50% or greater. This would include the CTA and FTA, but also outside experts brought in from overseas and from outside the fairly small circle of US transit consulting firms. US engineering firms need to be included, but frankly outside leadership and new seats at the table are going to be needed to really drive new thinking. We need to examine every aspect of these systems. What is the minimum we are legally required to build? What requirements are driving excess construction costs versus overseas systems and can we eliminate them? Are there new techniques such as pre-fabrication that could drive large savings? Can we pool purchasing with NYC or elsewhere? Can off the shelf systems be used where possible instead of bespoke (admittedly, maybe difficult in an other legacy system like Chicago)? Can we use more grade level construction and street crossings instead of expensive elevated construction and viaducts? What could we do with public-private partnerships? There would appear to be all sorts of things that could be investigated as means of materially reducing the cost of the system. Some of them might require legal or regulatory changes, but given the dollars at stake both locally and nationally, it is worth fighting that fight.
Again, we need an aggressive target for cost savings and incentives to drive results. At a minimum, someone should be able to detail why our costs are so much higher than the rest of the world’s as right now there is no prima facie reason evident.
Regional Transit Governance
Chicago has three more or less independent transit service boards: the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The RTA provides financial oversight and is also chartered with coordinating these agencies. It’s been long noted that in fact the three agencies mostly don’t cooperate that much, and there are frequent turf battles, etc.
I think a bit of this is overblown. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a lack of integration between the CTA and Metra is a major barrier to improved transit regionally. Would integrated fares and more coordinated schedules help? Sure, but that’s not the secret sauce to really moving the bar.
However, the various turf battles do lead to challenges on occasion, and the fact that these agencies are so independent in their operations leads to bad “optics” and provides ammo to those who would oppose change in the region. It’s like when the CTA had a bus on Lake St. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of that route, it was really minor in the grand scheme of things. But it was always something people could point to as an example of misplaced priorities. (“As long as the CTA has a bus running underneath the L, I’ll never take them seriously” and such). It plays into the whole “gotcha” mentality of politics.
So this is something we should probably take a look at while putting together that vision. And there are some legitimate items that need to be addressed. Again, I won’t be prescriptive as to what that more integrated vision is, or how governance would change, just say that it ideally ought to be part of the discussion.
Unfortunately, this is likely to be the most troublesome aspect in many ways. Consider this: the CTA carries 80% of the region’s transit ridership. But the CTA gets far less than 80% of the money. This is true of the RTA tax, the stimulus, the recent capital bill, etc. Someone labeled my winning entry from the Chamber of Commerce competition as “suburb infuriating”. Actually, I’m not anti-Metra. I think they are a fantastic agency and love riding Metra trains. In fact, I budgeted for heavy increases in Metra ridership and significant investment in that system in my winning entry. The but the fact remains that the lion’s share of the region’s transportation ridership is on the CTA. All service boards aren’t created equal.
For their part, Metra also has some legitimate complaints. They’d no doubt say that since they carry passengers over longer distances, passenger-miles, not passenger counts is the best measure. There’s something to that. (Though I’d argue it leads to certain perverse outcomes such as rewarding service to far exurban areas like Elburn. Why are we using precious transit dollars to subsidize non-transit oriented sprawl developments even further from downtown?) Also, Metra provides significant service in the city, but doesn’t receive any of the RTA sales tax in the city. It should come as no surprise to anybody that their service priorities follow the funding. And Metra is arguably the long pole in the tent when it comes to feeling the pain of transit underinvestment. As Metra trains get more crowded and turn into standing room sardine cans, this is going to very negatively affect the perception of the Loop as a business destination. It won’t take that much ridership growth to get there.
So there is a lot to consider here and it will obviously be something difficult to pull of politically, but a challenge that should be tackled along with the rest.
Lastly, I received an email followup to part one of this series from someone who had some interesting insights as to offer about why Chicagoans don’t seem to demand better transit. Presented here in an anonymized fashion.
Your discussion of what Chicagoans want or are willing to pay for vis-a-vis world-class mass transit reminds me of a concept I learned in the early ’90s.
The concept is “Racquet”. I learned of it related to organizational behavior but it sounds like the inhabitants of Chicago may have a racquet as well. A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).
I worked for a rapidly growing company in the early 90′s. We were a company with many cowboys. We (the top 70 leaders in the company) commiserated on any number of things. The CEO hired two consultants to help “transform” the company into a modern, international company with cohesive leadership. They introduced us to the “racquet” theory. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the racquets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives that it would be in a each-man-for-himself city.
Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)
Sunday, September 13th, 2009
Indianapolis development blog DIG-B recent broke the news that two prime lots on the downtown Canal Walk are available. The IBJ covered the story this week, and since I was quoted in it, I thought it would be a good time to elaborate my thoughts on the Canal.
The Canal Walk can be viewed as a success in some regards – the Canal itself is quite nice, there is new development along it where previously there were rundown buildings or weedy lots, and at times you’ll see a few people strolling along it. However, if viewed against the aspirations that were publicly set for it – that it would be another San Antonio Riverwalk – the Canal has clearly failed. There is very little retail development along the canal, the developments there have generated effectively no organic spin-offs, and the Canal is generally lightly patronized.
Why is this? And what can we learn from it?
For those who aren’t in Indianapolis, a little history is in order. In the early 1800′s, the state borrowed massively to fund an ambitious network of canals. Indiana’s timing was impeccable – impeccably bad – since rail was about to eclipse water as a form of transport. Also, the costs were radically underestimated. The end result was that after 13 miles of the Central Canal in Indianapolis were completed, the undertaking was abandoned and the state declared bankruptcy.
Today the Canal is owned by the Indianapolis Water Company, that which uses it to channel water to its filtration plant. On the north side, the canal is a recreational amenity with a popular trail that links Broad Ripple to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and beyond. Downtown, the grassy banked canal was replaced with a concrete channel and high quality side paths in an effort to create a riverwalk amenity that would spur redevelopment in an area that had seen better days. The Canal cut through the Indiana Avenue district, once a thriving black neighborhood. As with many such segregation era neighborhoods, most of Indiana Avenue was obliterated by urban renewal and industrial encroachment. But this area was in downtown and the city viewed it as prime property where redevelopment could be kick started with public investment. The vision was, to use a hackneyed phrase, to create a “live, work, play” area with a mix of residential, entertainment/commercial, and office space. The Canal itself would be a bustling recreational and entertainment zone, which would then generate spin-off development in surrounding areas.
Today, almost all of the land fronting the Canal has been filled in with buildings, but otherwise little of the vision was achieved. Why? It is a direct result of the type of uses and style of development that were implemented along the Canal, development that was, by design, incapable of producing the types of benefits the city wanted to see. I attribute the decision to default to this style to the maturity curve of downtown. At the time the Canal Walk was developed about 15 years ago, downtown was a very different place. It would not have supported robust urban development. Unfortunately, recent developments have largely continued the template established back then even as downtown and macro trends have changed dramatically.
Almost every block or super-block along the Canal was developed for a single, monolithic use, typically institutional. The uses are not well integrated and have not created synergies. What’s more, virtually all of them are very inward facing, and many of them are explicitly suburban in design. Developments along the Canal generally engage with the Canal proper in a decent way architecturally, if not functionally. And almost every development completely turns it back on the surrounding streets of West St. and Senate Ave. Given that West St. is a six lane mega-highway, perhaps that side is understandable. But the ignoring of Senate Ave is less justifiable.
Unfortunately, the IBJ article came out so quickly I didn’t have time to take a full photographic survey of the area, so will rely on narrative for much of this, but let’s take a virtual tour of the Canal and see what we find.
The Canal starts, or more properly ends, in White River State Park. It meanders through it, making an east-west cut under West St. in a much needed underpass, then turns north. Crossing under West St., we come to development. There north side of the Canal is a fire station. The south side, and extending around the bend where the Canal becomes north-south, is the Indiana Government Center.
The Indiana Government Center is a sprawling campus stretching between Capitol and West north of Washington St. It includes the State House and a number of auxiliary buildings. Other than a midrise tower, most of these are very short buildings. Two of them are parking garages with no commercial space that kill entire city blocks. Another is a low-rise superblock development called the Indiana Government Center South building. This campus creates a huge barrier between the Wholesale District and White River State Park, but that is for another day. The north end of the campus abuts the Canal. It has exactly the effect one would expect of a state office building. Other than people on lunch break who get to use the Canal as a sort of outdoor area for the state cafeteria, this frontage is dead. Of course, as a government owned building, this extensive “beachfront property” frontage generates no tax revenue.
When the state built a non-revenue producing parking garage along the Canal frontage, it did leave a narrow grass embankment where future development could go. The state issued an RFP to developers, but an organization called MCANA – an umbrella group of neighborhood organizations that is principally oriented towards outer township areas – wants to leave it empty. They are basically people who like to come downtown a handful of times per year to use that embankment to watch concerts across the Canal. The city shows every sign of having capitulated to them. While the economy precludes development at this time, the city and state have made no statements that they are currently supportive of development on the site.
The concerts take place at a building on the west side of the Canal north of Ohio St., which is the headquarters of the Indiana Historical Society, a non-profit organization. The IHS headquarters is a classic Indianapolis building that looks great if photographed from one particular direction, in this case the front of the building on Ohio, but otherwise seems to not care what people think about it. The rear of the building is taken up by a large surface parking lot clearly visible from the Canal, and a loading dock.
We’ve now come two blocks and have yet to find any tax paying property along this multi-million amenity. North of here, however, there are some private developments. Among these are a block taken up by a Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and a Residence Inn. These are exact replicas of their brethren you see lining every interstate highway in America, complete with a parking lot that takes up the majority of the land area.
This introduces us to another feature of the Canal that will recur again and again. Namely, large private parking lots that are verboten to the general public. Ironically, while there is a large amount of parking directly along the Canal, it can be surprisingly difficult for a visitor to actually find a place to park. We also see a development that wants to seal itself off from the city around it. You can access the site as a pedestrian from the outside, but not easily, as this picture shows.
These hotels received a ten year tax abatement plus a generous land deal.
There are a couple of apartment complexes along the Canal in this area too. These are among the earliest developments and curiously among the best. While one can quibble with the architectural style, they make some attempt for good urban engagement with the surrounding streets by maintaining a continuous streetwall, first floor windows, hidden interior parking, etc. Here is one of them, the Canal Square apartments, seen on its Canal frontage:
The newer residential developments are actually less successful, showing that in some regards the quality of development along the Canal actually declined over time. Paradigmatic of this is a townhome development called Watermark. Watermark consisted of a series of detached townhouses and some condo buildings along the Canal. Notably, the parking garages face the street on Senate Ave., not that we have to look at them since the development is enclosed in an opaque perimeter fence:
This is literally a small gated subdivision downtown. It is hermetically sealed against all outside intrusions when the gate is closed. This shows precisely why the Canal has never generated material spin-off development. When the buildings along it are designed to be entirely self-contained, self-sufficient islands walled off from anything around them, why would anyone expect anything different. These buildings are designed specifically so that nothing outside can affect them, and hence ensure that they can affect nothing outside. Save, of course, rendering Senate Ave. even more bleak.
This is Exhibit A in what I mean by the maturity curve of downtown. It is easy to complain about this development, but 15 years ago or so when it was built, downtown was a very different place and the country was a very different place. The current vogue for city living was yet to take hold. Downtown Indy had few residents and this area looked – and still looks – to the casual visitor such a prospective home buyer rather sketchy. A lot of the development from this era was built to look suburban in order to attract the suburban home buyer with a familiar product, and was designed to give off the impression of security.
Even so, this development struggled and I don’t know if even to this day every unit has been sold. As it turns out, when you given someone the choice between a real suburban environment – complete with good schools, low taxes, and safe streets – and a downtown development masquerading as a suburb, people choose the real thing most of the time.
Across the street from this is an apartment complex beamed into downtown as if directly from some nearby suburb. Called the Gardens of Canal Court, it consists of several buildings set in a jumble around winding streets with mostly surface parking. Here’s a picture:
One feature of this I don’t have a picture of is some detached garages that do exist for it that whose backsides face West St. West St. is the principal entryway into downtown from the northwest, and these garage backsides are among the first thing any visitor sees when arriving in downtown Indy from that gateway. When the design was originally proposed, this was decried in an Indianapolis Star column by Steve Mannheimer to no avail.
The frontage along the Canal is nicer in some respects:
But if you look closely, these buildings, though they have small patios along the Canal, don’t have any direct access to it. The buildings are completely fenced/walled in. Again, this was probably done for reasons of privacy/security, but I can’t help but make an analogy to a city street. Would someone build apartments this walled off from the street? No. This is typical of Canal development, however, and demonstrates again the hermetically sealed nature of most such developments. Also, you can see the dearth of users of the Canal here. Clearly, I took this picture in season where the leaves are not on the trees, so weather is likely cool, but from what I’ve seen even in perfect weather there are rarely that many people on the Canal unless there is a special event of some sort.
One new residential development bucks the trend. That is the under construction Cosmopolitan on the Canal at Michigan St. This is a multi-use building that is primarily apartments but also has some commercial space both at Canal level, and on the corner of Michigan and Senate. Set across the street from Mo-Joe’s coffee, this could create a bona fide commercial node at Senate/Michigan. It is going to provide something that is oddly missing from the Canal at present: a public restroom. The building also engages reasonably well with the neighborhood on all sides. Had the Canal been lined with Cosmopolitans right from the start, things might be vastly different today. Senate might have become a more inviting street with a mix of interesting residential and retail, generating spin-off development to the east.
Unfortunately, this building burned to the ground in an arson fire set by a homeless person. It is currently being rebuilt. My only picture is from the construction period pre-fire, but it gives you a feel for the structure:
North of this residential zone, the Canal turns commercial again and is surrounded mostly by low rise offices. One of the earliest of these was a building originally known as the Technology Transfer Center, and which is still used as some sort of Indiana University research building. The following picture will give you an indication of how buildings in this section of the Canal engage with it. The TTC is the building in the background:
The TTC has a large parking lot that is again off limits to anyone who is not an employee or visitor the to the building. To enforce this, they used to padlock the empty lot shut after hours, preventing anyone who wanted to visit the Canal from parking there. Today they make due with a menacing sign:
That’s the TTC in the background. This building is directly in front of the USS Indianapolis Memorial, one of the key attractions of the Canal. Good luck finding a parking spot. The now on the market lots are north of this.
The TTC canal basin with the USS Indianapolis Memorial used to be the north end of the renovated Canal, but it was extended north another couple blocks, principally so that Clarian Health, the largest hospital chain in the region, could build a series of three buildings around it. One of these is Fairbanks Hall:
As you can see, we continue with the suburban theme. This is a photo that could easily have been taken in north suburban Carmel, with a low rise office building flanking a detention pond. I’m imagining a “fountain” spraying water up in the air in the middle of it. This illustrates what the Canal has in effect become, namely an office park amenity. This office park, however, is owned by a non-profit institution.
And that is the best view of the building. As with most suburban office buildings, this one is indifferent to the streets around it. Here’s the 10th St. frontage:
10th St. here is also a one-way, high speed arterial with no parking, similar to many suburban circulator roads. Here’s the view along West St., again a principal entryway into downtown.
The north end of the Canal is anchored by another suburban style building, this one, however, has the very urban feature of an integrated stop on the Clarian People Mover, an elevated rail system ferrying people between their various facilities:
Clarian admirably built this with their own money. However, since they used public right of ways to do it, the city required that they make the system accessible and free to the general public. But they didn’t say Clarian had to make it easy for the public to use it.. Look again at the picture. Superficially, it looks like an urban metro station, but the glass in front is merely a window. There are no doors along the street in order to enter the station, which can only be accessed from inside the building.
The fake metro entrance perhaps epitomizes what has happened along the Canal Walk. It’s Potemkin development. In some respects it is almost literally like the set of a Western, something not designed to stand up to real scrutiny. Look at it from the Canal, and it’s like a bustling main street – minus the bustle. But behind the propped up facades….
It also illustrates the truth of the Jane Jacobs quote above. Throwing money at problems isn’t always the answer. The Canal Walk itself cost millions to build. But it is lined with insular, suburban style development that by definition cannot generate self-sustaining urban life or spin-offs. Also, probing behind the commercial developments, we see that they are largely either public sector, quasi-public sector, or non-profit, making it questionable how much commercial tax revenue the city is actually generating from what is there. The Canal, likely because of its proximity to to IUPUI and the fact that most of its residential developments are apartments not condos, has attracted a lot of people to live downtown. That’s a real plus. But they do not have the same access to groceries or other easy neighborhood conveniences they can pleasantly walk to like those who live along Mass Ave.
Was it ever realistic to expect that the Canal Walk could go from unattractive wasteland to thriving mixed use district in one swoop? Perhaps not. When the dial is completely turned to one side, you can’t easily turn it all the way to the other side. Perhaps instead we need to look at this, in homage to thundermutt, as a type of Hoosier version of the Japanese kaizen ethic of continuous improvement. Each iteration should be better than the last and we continue to get better over time. Clearly, the Canal is better than what was there before by a long shot.
There’s something to this, but it has serious weaknesses. It creates a benchmark of success based only on existing conditions. In this logic, if something is better than what was there before, it must be good. However, was the result as good as we could have achieved under the circumstances? We could be better than the past while still vastly under-performing versus our potential.
Also, while a purely continuous improvement view of the world might work great in a world with one city, the world we live in, alas, is a competitive place. Indianapolis isn’t just in competition with its own past, but with other cities all around the world. It is in a fierce war for people and businesses. Is the product it is putting on the field matching up well against the competition? That’s the true challenge.
I’d like to propose two aspirations by which we can evaluate development. These applies to any city as well as they do to Indianapolis:
Continuously improve at a rate greater than the cities you compete with, and aspire to compete with, are improving.
Implicit in this is that we are actively looking at the world around us and what the competition is doing, Midwest cities do a poor job of this at present.
Is Indianapolis meeting these standards? Speaking as someone who tries to look at what is going on in many cities and also to visit and see first hand what is going on in them, I’d have to say that, when it comes to downtown development, it is not. The quality of development in Indianapolis is often lower than you see in competitor cities. And while Indianapolis still has a Midwest-leading downtown in my view, and one of the strongest of any city its size, with some very unique and successful assets such as the Wholesale District, the reality is that the gap between Indy and Midwest peer city downtowns is narrowing, not widening. Partially this is natural. Incremental improvements generally become more difficult to achieve over time. Indy has to keep elevating its game with new ideas while other cities can, to some extent, merely replicate what Indy has already done, a much easier task. And the gap Indy needs to bridge between it and aspirational competitors like Denver is significant, though I think Indy’s downtown can definitely hold its own against Minneapolis, especially when factoring in the size difference in metro areas. I would say that to meet the criteria I laid out, Indianapolis needs to embrace the marketing tag line it has created for itself and raise the game for downtown. These two on-the-market parcels on the Canal Walk would be a good place to start.
You may also enjoy this story on the Canal Walk from a fantastic new Indianapolis blog American Dirt called “Where the Canal Walk first went wrong“. DIG-B is also a great source of information and photos about the canal. I borrowed some of these pictures from those blogs and hopefully the authors won’t mind.
Friday, September 11th, 2009
Recession Job Losses
The Windy Citizen pointed me at coverage of metro area job losses in the recession. Here is how the 12 cities I principally cover in this blog stacked up, sorted in descending order of percentage losses:
- Detroit; 139,600 jobs; -7.5%
- Milwaukee; 44,800; -5.2%
- Cleveland; 54,100; -5.1%
- Chicago; 206,200; -4.5%
- Indianapolis; 40,200; -4.4%
- Cincinnati; 42,200; -4.0%
- Louisville; 22,900; -3.7%
- Minneapolis-St. Paul; 63,100; -3.5%
- St. Louis; 43,900; -3.3%
- Pittsburgh; 32,800 – 2.8%
- Kansas City; 21,900; -2.1%
- Columbus, Ohio; 19,600; -2.1%
A couple things that jump out of me from this are that Chicago and Indianapolis are doing far worse than conventional wisdom views of their overall economic health. Both regions are getting clobbered. The Pittsburgh story gets some additional ammunition, as does my view that Columbus is the next Midwestern star.
Recession Job Recovery
So when will the jobs come back? Nobody knows for sure, but an organization called IHS Global Insight has predicted the year in which employment will match its pre-recession peak in various major US cities (via IBJ News Talk):
- Kansas City: 2011
- Columbus: 2012
- Indianapolis: 2012
- Louisville: 2013
- Minneapolis-St. Paul: 2013
- Pittsburgh: 2013
- Chicago: 2014
- Cincinnati: 2014
- St. Louis: 2014
- Cleveland: After 2015
- Detroit: After 2015
- Milwaukee: After 2015
High Speed Rail Roundup
Harvard economist Ed Glaeser writes for the NYT Economix blog. A few weeks ago he did a four part series on high speed rail. I’d meant to do a post on this but didn’t get around to it. So here are some belated links. I think it is fair to say he’s a skeptic:
- Is high speed rail a good public investment?
- Running the numbers on high speed trains
- How big are the environmental benefits of high speed rail?
- What would high speed rail do to suburban sprawl?
Amtrak runs off the rails (New Geography)
The “Prince of Pops” Dead at 74
Erich Kunzel, longstanding pops conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, died recently at aged 74.
The Cincinnati Symphony is a well known national orchestra, but it was as the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel that they achieved their greatest popular success. Kunzel recorded 85 albums with the Cincinnati Pops, an astonishing 55 of which made it into the top 10 on the Billboard classical charts. They sold over 10 million copies and and earned several grammy awards. Truly a giant has passed.
Indy Cultural Trail Bus Shelters
The Indy Cultural Trail program announced that it will be installing three new bus shelters along the trail designed by local architect Donna Sink:
These shelters will feature the works from local poets, and are also constructed with an eco-friendly design.
@AndreaApplegate pointed me at this program the state of Ohio is launching called “Ohio Ambassadors” looking for volunteers who are willing to “tell the Ohio story”. Done correctly, this could be a big win. In fact, it is something I suggested that Indianapolis adopt at variation of, particularly for minorities. Let’s face it, if you are an ethnic professional, gay, etc. and considering a move to the Midwest, the reputation alone could give you pause. But the Midwest is already diverse today. Why not tap into that by getting local volunteers of similar backgrounds to be on “hot standby” to help show a prospective recruit around town and show him or here that there will be a community of people like them, an active social life, access to native culture, etc.? This might actually prove more powerful than any swank dinner or trip to the local sports team’s skybox.
One thing about this program that caught my eye was the concept of the “Ambassador at Large”, which is made up of, “Anybody not living in our state that has had a positive Ohio experience and wants to Share the Ohio Story with others.” Imagine that, looking at people who left as a sort of field sales force and and actual asset.
We’ll see what this program turns out to be since so few details are available. If it is just a marketing mailing list and some freebies, it probably won’t amount to much. But done right, it could have some benefits.
Powering the World With Solar
Here’s an interesting map showing the surface area that would be required to supply the world’s energy needs with solar power. I don’t know if it is accurate, but it is provocative.
Portland Creatives Find Ways to Work Together
GOOD explores the problem of what to do when there are more people who want to live in a city than jobs for them with regards to Portland, Oregon:
Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs….As I strolled the city from meeting to meeting, I realized that out of necessity, Portland is quickly finding the answers to a much greater issue that’s going to affect an increasingly freelance workforce across the country: Where are all these people going to work?
This interesting piece talks about firms opening up their office space for “co-working”, and interesting things like low cost space in converted motels turning into labs for small business startups.
Paris Metro Augmented Reality Application
One of the super-cool features of the new iPhone 3GS is the so-called “augmented reality”, where you hold up the phone and view a live picture of what is in front of you through the camera lens, with information overlaid on it.
The first app out there taking advantage of this is the Paris metro system. You activate the map, hold up your phone, and you see a picture of the street with big signs where the metro is. Pretty cool. Of course naturally they also include advertising as well. You can search for McDonald’s and Starbucks. I don’t know about you, but the sight of all those huge American logos on the streetscapes of Paris is pretty creepy.
Here’s a video demonstration. It’s in French, but even if you don’t speak the language, the pictures are worth a thousand words. So enjoy a little “réalité augmentée”
National and International Roundup
Joel Kotkin looks at world capitals of the future.
There is more tension and fallout from demographic change resulting from the surging white population of the city of Atlanta, as the CS Monitor reports how a “Memo about a ‘black agenda’ in mayor’s race roils Atlanta“. Interestingly, as a city that has long been known as a great place for blacks to live, we may be looking at the first major city in America to flip from majority white to majority black and back again. The dynamics resulting from this will be important for others to study, particularly as central cities regain attraction to many of the people who originally fled them for the suburbs, and their children. See also: “After 35 years, next Atlanta mayor may be white“.
Florida Exodus: Rising Taxes Drive Out Residents (Time Magazine via Yahoo)
Planetizen looks at toolkits and design design manuals.
Is making right turns easier always a good thing? Interesting thoughts from American Dirt.
Forbes looks at very smart cities in South Korea.
The Industrial Wonders of Northwest Indiana (Chicago Sojourn) – Great pictures. Related is “The Magic of Marktown” at the Chicagoist.
Celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the street addressing system (Tribune)
West Loop park infuses Chicago with green space (Inhabit)
O’Hare to get competition? (DC Velocity)
CTA to share bus tracker code with outside developers (CTA Tattler)
A lesson in municipal finance (Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space)
Southeast Michigan faces $35 billion deficit in road revenue (Detroit News)
Tolls may not cover Mackinac bridge upkeep (Detroit News)
Meijer sees a chance to prosper in Detroit (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Michigan Subsidies Fail (WSJ op-ed) – study referenced comes from a right wing think tank
Indiana leads the nation – in coal ash ponds (C-J)
Surprise in Indiana: A deli worth the trip (The Atlantic) – Props for the Goose; h/t UrbanIndy
Arkansas Innovation: Stunning Southern Architecture (Web Urbanist) – awesome photos of the work of Marlon Blackwell, who is the architect of the visitor’s center at the forthcoming IMA Art and Nature Park.
NIMBY’s Gone Wild (Indy Star) – My title
Tyler Allen to enter mayor’s race (C-J) – Co-Founder of 8664
Neighbors want meat plant out of Butchertown (C-J) – Ironic headline of the day. I hope Louisville keeps in mind the need to preserve manufacturing in the city.
New sectors will heat up in Louisville’s economic recovery (C-J)
Aerotropolis Redux (Smart City Memphis)
CVS store design rejected (StlUrbanWorkshop) – Attributed to “recently arrived neighbors passionate about urban design”