Sunday, January 24th, 2010

The Core Vitality Imperative

You can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” – Bill Hudnut

What does a healthy urban core mean to a region? Maybe the difference between success and failure. Here’s a look at urban core and regional job growth for selected cities*, ranked by percentage job growth in the core county from 2001 to 2009.

City Job Change – Core Pct. Job Change – Core Job Change – Metro Pct. Job Change – Metro
Austin 21,500 4.0% 79,000 11.8%
Portland (17,300) (3.9%) 10,300 1.1%
Columbus (46,500) (6.6%) (11,757) (1.3%)
Cincinnati (64,200) (11.5%) (24,400) (2.5%)
Cleveland (95,600) (12.1%) (108,700) (10.1%)
Detroit (181,200) (21.3%) (382,800) (18.7%)

Notice a pattern? Clearly, for these cities at least, core county performance is an excellent proxy for overall regional performance. I’m not making a statistical claim here, but the data for these cities is suggestive. I think it also foots with our common sense view. How many thriving metro areas have a core city/county that is going down the tubes? I can’t name one.

The Dynamics of Growth and Decline

It might be easy to dismiss cities like Cleveland and Detroit by simply calling them dysfunctional. But that misses the point. Of course they’re dysfunctional. All struggling cities and organizations are dysfunctional, or they probably wouldn’t be in that state. What’s more, rather than just dysfunction causing failure, which is sometimes true, it’s also true that failure causes dysfunction. As a city (or company or other organization) starts into decline, it fails to attract customers, top talent leaves, and operational and financial issues creep up. In this regard the civic dysfunction noted in places like California is as much as product of decline as its cause.

Growth and decline are both positive reinforcement cycles. During growth, economies of scale drive unit cost efficiencies, and there’s rising wealth to fund investments that generate more wealth. As places like Phoenix and Florida attest, even the raw construction that accompanies growth can generate its own bubble.

Similarly for decline. Scale economics go into reverse, there’s no money to invest, people start fleeing. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser attributes a lot of this to an inelastic housing supply. As people leave, the quantity of houses stays the same, which drives prices down. This scares more people into leaving, attracts poor people, which cause more middle class people to leave, which cause prices to decline further, etc.

The Imperative of Preventing Core Decline

Given these dynamics, it is imperative to prevent decline from taking hold. I identify four basic states of regional growth: Hyper-Growth, Moderate Growth, Stagnation, and Decline. Austin is Hyper-Growth, Portland and Columbus are Moderate Growth, Cincinnati is Stagnation, and Cleveland and Detroit are Decline in this scenario. (Assignment not entirely based on job growth).

I posit as a hypothesis that these states don’t exist as a pure continuum, but rather behave more as discrete quanta, with forces that tend to keep cities in their present state. What’s more, I’d suggest that transitions from one state to another occur as a result of a sort of “punctured equilibrium” that occurs when growth, or more likely decline, in the core reaches a tipping point. Or as Dietrich Dörner put it, “‘Catastrophes’ seem to hit suddenly, but in reality the way has been prepared for them. Unperceived forces gradually eat away at the supports necessary for favorable development until the system is finally unable to resist any longer and collapses.”

Why the core? Because it seems that decline in a region first becomes evident there. The implication is that we should would keep a very close eye on core city and core county demographic trends (population growth, domestic and international in-migration, and educational attainment) and economic statistics (job growth, income growth, output growth). It seems unlikely that core counties are likely to have net in-migration as they are structural exporters to the suburbs. But if they aren’t attractive to international immigrants, are losing jobs, etc. that’s definitely a very bad sign. These negative trends might not be obvious or be ignored because of the stickiness of the current growth state – until it is too late.

For example, even ostensibly healthy cities like Columbus, Ohio might have underlying trends that put it as risk. How likely is it that the Columbus region will be long term successful if Franklin County loses 50,000 jobs per decade? Not very. That’s the city’s tax base slowly bleeding away. And with Columbus very dependent on commuter taxes, that’s doubly true in this case.

Don’t Hate the Suburbs

It might be tempting to view the suburbs as the “bad guy” here. I reject that view. In a growing community, it isn’t reasonable to believe that all the new residents and businesses are going to land in a fixed area. And clearly, despite an optimistic trend towards urban living being back in fashion, the suburbs continue to have a hold on the desires of large numbers of Americans, particularly families with kids.

I want to bring the central city up, not pull the suburbs down. A great city needs great suburbs. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s room for regional solutions or other matters. But especially in a struggling region like the Midwest, we need every part of a region to understand its role on the team and bring its “A game”. Pitting city and against suburb is like beggars arguing over table scraps. The real competition is between, not within regions, on a global basis. And even that competition need not be a zero-sum game.

If we start taking an antagonistic point of view towards the suburbs, especially in regions like the Midwest and South with strong suburban traditions and little political demand for pro-urban policies, we’re just asking to fail, practically speaking.

I think we need to focus on maintaining core vitality, without worrying that the suburbs are growing too. Even Austin has most of its growth in the suburbs, but the core county is still growing as well. Portland has moderate core decline, but that may be a temporary state due to its under performance in the recession. And Portland has the problem of being on a state border, which leads to tax and policy arbitrage with nearby Washington – a tough challenge. Still, the policies Portland has put in place has kept its core significantly more healthy than those of the Midwest. As long as the core stays strong, that’s a good thing.

And, of course, as these numbers show, perhaps the best way to boost the suburbs is to boost the core.

What’s Your Policy?

So how do we keep our urban cores successful over the long term? That’s a tough challenge. Frankly, it’s a nut America hasn’t cracked, other than for the tier one global cities, and even there, the story is very overplayed.

On the one side are those that cite high costs and poor services in the city. The recipe here is cutting costs, improving schools, and reducing crime. But as readers of my blog know, this, by itself, will never save the core. Cut costs and taxes? By all means, let’s be as efficient as possible. But we’ll still have higher taxes than the suburbs. Reduce crime and improve schools? Sign me up. But no matter what, the city will still fail to measure up to the average suburb. Cities are structurally higher cost and and structurally weaker providers of education, public safety, and some other services than the suburbs. This strategy, by itself, isn’t enough.

On the other hand, promoters of urbanist solutions du jour – light rail, bike lanes, “green” projects, stadiums, etc – often fail to make the case for how their projects will actually change the game. Rather, they rely on cookbook policy and talking point advocacy.

What’s more, success is often measured by eye candy rather than hard data. For example, people visit Chicago and gawk at the skyscrapers and crowds without considering that the area tourists and even many residents see is only a tiny part of the city or region. People visit Portland and see crowded street cars and sidewalks in the Pearl District, but discount job growth if they even consider it. I can read urbanist blogs all day long and rarely ever come across the word “job”, unless it is some reference to the green economy.

That’s not to say that Portland or Chicago are failures – far from it – but the impression given by visiting or a glowing magazine article is certainly not the whole story.

The Way Forward

For me, I think the first imperative is still to convince people of the importance of the urban core to overall regional (and state and national) success. Too many people still don’t get this. Our cities are still often resented more than loved. As they are often home to the upscale amenities, high end jobs, and may wealthy residents, this reinforces the notion that they are already privileged, when as the data above shows, this is really not the case. And of course, cities are often Democratic strangleholds, which makes Republicans take a skeptical view of pro-urban policy. It’s a hard argument to make, but we’ve got to figure out how.

We also need to remember the importance of the basics. Things like costs, taxes, regulatory policy, crime, and schools do matter. We simply can’t take our eye off the ball here, or ignore costs. We need to remember that sustainability includes demographic, economic, and fiscal sustainability.

On the other hand, cities do have to offer a differentiated product. They can’t try to out suburb the suburbs. That’s a sucker’s game. Rather, they do need to strengthen their core urbanity, make diversity into an asset, and find ways to make targeted investments that are aligned with an urban strategy, tailored to the local context, and for which we think we can generate good ROI.

It’s a tough balancing act and a hard challenge, one we haven’t figured out yet. But we’ve got to go beyond dogma and ask the tough questions. Because if we fail to keep our urban cores healthy, we’ll end up in a place we really don’t want to be. I plan to keep exploring how we get to a better place in this blog.

Related from the Columbus Dispatch: When will Ohio’s economic plunge end? (Answer: When its urban cores return to health)

Post Script: Suburban-Only Job Growth

Lest someone thing I’m trying to disguise the suburban-only growth, here it is for the cities in question. Note that other than Portland, the rankings don’t change.

City Suburban Job Growth Percentage Suburban Job Growth
Austin 57,540 44.1%
Columbus 34,800 19.2%
Cincinnati 39,800

Portland 27,600 5.3%
Cleveland (13,100) (4.6%)
Detroit (201,600) (16.8%)

* Data is from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Q1-2001 to Q1-2009, which was the maximum year over year range available for easy download from the BLS at the time I started pulling data. I originally intended to include all my Midwest metros, but the BLS took the database offline for multiple days in the middle of my queries. This isn’t the first time that happened. Their database query uptime is highly suspect, so caveat emptor if you ever need BLS data.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability

73 Responses to “The Core Vitality Imperative”

  1. George Mattei, you’re of course right, which is why I said I wasn’t making any statistical claims, only hypothesizing.

  2. John Morris says:

    You guys make a number of good points or at least things to think about which I can’t fully respond to at this time.

    I really don’t know enough about population distribution in the midwest cities to know if your point is close to right. I think it is in many cases in which case, I would tend to agree with you. Here in the Pittsburgh area, Mount Lebanon/ Dormont are relatively close and wealthy Penn Hills schools are not too far from Swissvale, Forest Hills and North Braddock. Certainly quite a logsitical challenge that might work in higher grades.

    In the city itself, CAPA is fairly well integrated for a public high school but honestly private schools are the choice of many people who choose to live in the city.

    Magnet programs in NYC go pretty far beyond just Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Laguardia and Brooklyn Tech. When I grew up in Woodside in Central Queens, my sisters both went to a marine biology program at Beach Channel miles away. My zoned high school, Hillcrest in Jamacia had a music program that drew in students from all around Queens. Pretty much every High School has some alleged magnet program, even if some are not good.

    Even so, at huge NYC schools kids tend to divide and track into different classes depending on interests and abilities.

    The main point I was trying to make was to connect urban density, walkability and transit with the availability of school choice.

    One needs to understand, that even NYC, the closest thing to a model for the U.S., lack of good transit is a really big factor in limiting school choices. Almost all the substantial transit lines run into and out of Manhattan. What’s really needed now is a grid of north and south routes in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

    New York as a city is only now starting to recover from the damage done to it from 1940 on.

    As to education costs, the real realistic benchmark should be what private schools spend per student which is almost always much less at all but the most elite schools. Fantasies about all districts matching the wealthiest suburban districs, need to be put to rest. It just isn’t going to happen and one of the main reasons for that is that school funding competes with road funding.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The private schools, at least in New York, cost about $25,000 per student, about on a par with the richest suburban districts. The private school I went to in Singapore costs $17,000 a year, about three times the per-student funding of public schools in Singapore.

    New York City currently spends $17,000, after years of rapid spending hikes under Bloomberg; in 2001, it was $11,000. The magnet schools actually spend less than city average, because they have almost no special needs students.

    The problem with building a grid of subway lines in New York is that the MTA is only now beginning to learn cost control. Subway construction in Manhattan costs about 7 times as much as in peer cities in Europe. There are some good possible routes for additional subway lines serving the Outer Boroughs, but they’re not viable at New York construction costs.

  4. John Morris says:

    Catholic shools in NYC certainly don’t cost $25,000 a year and make do a pretty good job with a very cross section of kids.Ever hear of Christ The King or Arbishop Malloy or St. Francis Prep in Queens or Chaminade High School on Long Island? ST. Regis in Manhattan is free! (if you can get in)I’m sure there are a number of others, I can’t name off the top of my head.

    My sisters kids went to St Francis on the salaries of two NYC school teachers. No way were they paying that much.

    They are really struggling but NY Catholic schools still play a very considerable role and would play a much bigger one. People must have the money to pay taxes for the public schools plus private school tuitions.

    Holy $$$$$$$ . 17,000 per year per student! Don’t you think people could buy a lot of education for money like that?

    As to NYC’s high contruction costs for it’s state monopoly transit system. My guess is the reason is somehow related to how it’s state school system spends $17,000 per student.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The state has a monopoly on transit in most countries. State agencies in most of Europe and Asia work remarkably efficiently by American standards. Even in New York the problem isn’t always the state agencies. One of the reasons for high costs is that the contractors collude and submit joint bids, instead of competing.

    The Catholic schools are not the same as the secular private schools. They have a captive market of teachers, who they don’t need to pay very well. They may also get large amounts of charity funding, which does not show up in the tuition.

    One of the problems of education nowadays is that teacher pay is based on 1950s social mores, in which teaching was nearly the only job open to educated married women. Nowadays, when women have more options, the best people usually avoid the low pay and the hassles of teaching, especially in schools with difficult kids (Stuy is fulfilling enough on its own a teacher would accept lower pay to be there). The Catholic Church has conveniently barred women from any position except teacher and nun.

    If you think $17,000 per student is high, you don’t want to know how much the top-rated school districts spend. In Westchester and Bergen Counties and on the North Shore of Long Island, $25,000 per student is common. There’s an argument to be made that the problem in inner cities isn’t so much low spending as lower spending than the suburbs, which gobble up all the good teachers.

    Part of the problem is low class size, which drives up the demand for teachers; this ends up sending all the good teachers to top-paying districts, leaving the inner cities with junk. The effect of low class size on performance, if it even exists, is much smaller than this of teacher quality, and the best-performing countries in the OECD, Japan and South Korea, have both traded high class size for high teacher pay.

  6. John Morris says:

    No time to fully respond to to all your comments.

    I guess, One question I have to ask is do you think all districts in NY state should be forced to shell out what what the top surburban ones do? $25,000 per year per student! (I’ll take your word on that)Most of those districts on Long Island can’t afford that either. I know three people who sold houses on the North Shore to move into the city to escape those taxes.

    As for the transit/density issue that started this, one really has to understand how badly NY was hurt by the bad decisions in the 50’s through the 70’s. All subway construction stopped in the 40’s and the cost of retrofitting areas after the fact is insanely difficult. The changes that should happen, are barely on the radar now.

    Bloomberg deserves a lot of credit for pushing density and small pedestrian improvements in Manhattan but the outer boroughs are still mostly off the radar. Changing the zoning laws for waterfront Brooklyn and Queens is very recent.

    Not every improvement has to be major subway infrastructure. Light rail or BRT lanes could play a big transitional role. A light rail lne down Woodhaven BLVD, or all the way down Northern BLVD in Queens would be huge.

  7. cdc guy says:

    Streetcars worked once all over the US. I think they would work especially well today in many core cities, especially by stealing a lane each direction on one-way arterial pairs that were installed in many cities. They’re a lot cheaper than subways, and they’re possible in Midwestern cities where subways are impossible due to high water tables.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    No, I don’t think that everyone should spend $25,000. This is definitely unsustainable on a national level beyond a few rich districts, just as one-on-one private tutoring is unsustainable beyond a few aristocrats. And, as I said, national funding on a lower level, say $10,000/student for New York living costs, could make things better for everyone by spreading good teachers around, instead of concentrating them in the richest districts.

    As for light rail in arterials: one of the most important transit improvements is replacing one-way pairs with two-way roads. One-way pairs optimize car traffic speed, but reduce bus access convenience; Jane Jacobs documents how in 1950s’ Manhattan, every time an avenue was converted to one-way the associated bus lines suffered an immediate drop in ridership.

    I’d say the most important Outer Borough transit improvement isn’t light rail, but activating Triboro Line. It has an existing right of way, grade-separated and wide enough almost everywhere for operation on passenger-dedicated track without new infrastructure except stations. Unlike the G, it intersects the existing radial lines at the major stations, allowing it to function well as a circumferential line. Anywhere else, it’d be like a subway for the cost of light rail. But in New York, the one-bid contracts may raise the costs to those of a normal-world subway.

    Some cities are made really easily for light rail, in the sense that there are good arterials, good corridors downtown for transit malls, and good suburban anchors. I think Columbus is one; a basic cross-shaped system running on Broad and High could be successful, if accompanied by proper upzoning, bus service changes, and downtown parking restrictions. I’m less sure about Indy, which seems to have more corridors than Columbus, each of lesser importance.

  9. John Morris says:

    Thanks for the Triboro line link. I was only slightly aware of that. I know there are a number of unused or little used lines and rights of ways around.

    I certainly looks good and would add some needed east west service in the Bronx. Without looking closely it looks like the north south link in central Queens would help by linking what looks like Astoria, through Sunnyside to Jackson Heights and then down through what looks like the edge of Rego Park or Forest Hills.

    Very awesome indeed. Seems resonable, however this would just be one of a number of routes and improvements needed. Eastern Queens would still have vast areas with light practical service.

    Some extension of either the subway or light rail is needed along Hillside Ave from 179th St or Jamacia Ave and some route is desperately needed south eastern Queens which could follow I think Atlantic Ave or Liberty Ave East.

    A full straight north south line along Woodhaven that extends at least as far as Howard Beach is needed. I could go on like there has to be North south routes further east also along with thousands of minute improvements to make Eastern Queens and large chunks of East and South Brooklyn fully into the city. All of this has to go along with a process of upzoning near transit routes and taking more and more space away from private cars.

    The concept when done would be to make NYC a city with six or seven dense downtown areas and A full intricate built up waterfront. We should have been working on this for the last 30 years.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    In the western half of Southern Brooklyn, there’s actually a subway glut – the various lines serving Coney Island are underused, because they were built for a Brooklyn that had a higher population than it does today. In the eastern half, there should be an extension of the 2/5; since 1929 there have been plans for an extension, running on Nostrand or Flatbush, and even in the 1970s the Transit Authority believed construction was imminent and trains would run by 1993.

    Eastern Queens has a couple of commuter rail corridors that would make great rapid transit lines, if they were ever configured for local service. This would require them to dramatically lower ticket prices for local service, increase off-peak frequency, improve connecting bus service, and possibly add a few more stops to serve more neighborhoods.

  11. John Morris says:

    I’m not sure if the current population measures are the thing to work from in NYC. It’s pretty clear there’s pretty solid demand to live there–in spite of how relatively poor the city has been run.

    The thing is to try to guess and adopt policies for the future. A grid type of light rail or something like that combined with a few other things would likely do that.

    How far are most areas from dense populations? Coney Island is sparse but check out Brighton Beach sometime. As you know plenty of developers see a market in Coney Island as well.

    The other key is that NYC has to get away from the idea of everyone throwing themselves into Manhattan every day. People could live in Mnahttan and commute out as well which would balance the peek rush.

    Already, we see Long Island City, in Queens, Downtown Brooklyn, Jamacia, Queens and have developed into mini downtowns and remember that many zoning laws were very recently changed.

    We need to mix the city up in the way Jane Jacobs would have imagined.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    The problem is that those secondary downtowns don’t have that high a transit share – the subway does a bad job of serving them. Downtown Brooklyn tops at 50%, and it goes downhill from there.

    While New York is really poorly run, I’m not sure city government is more corrupt than other local governments in the US. Every Rust Belt city is sure its own politicians are the most corrupt, and every Sunbelt city is sure it has no such corruption right up until the moment the indictments start coming.

  13. John Morris says:

    I didn’t say corrupt, though it may be what I meant was it’s very hard to get things done.

    As far as the secondary Downtowns go, I think it’s a lot easier than you think. Long Island City is right accross the river from Midtown and Queens Plaza and Queens Borough Plaza are either the first or second stop in from the city with what I think 5 subway lines meeting up–including several of the best lines in the city.

    Williamsburg in Brooklyn was actually once a separate ciy and has the remains of a nice downtown.

    As you said, Downtown Brooklyn is served by a hub of subway lines and has been vastly underbuilt. One primary thing is to make it easier to get to downtown Brooklyn from Queens.

    Main Street in Flushing already has a real downtown that has just organically developed in NYC’s largest asian district where the 7 line ends. I also has a long Island railroad stop.

    Jamacia in Queens is served by a major Long Island Railroad hub and the E, F and J lines, is a bus hub and is where one catches the trin to Kennedy Airport.

    With really fairly slight improvements, it’s not hard to imagine what I’m talking about. You really can see the process of downtowns trying to for or reform themselves around the major subway and bus connections and in dense ethnic groupings.

    The problem is that what I’m talking about should have been a gradual process. Jane talks a lot about the troubles of sudden change vs gradual change. This should have been about a slow reasonable process.

  14. cdc guy says:

    Alon and John, we can’t do the 2000’s the way Jane Jacobs would have redone the 1950s. The world has changed considerably. People expect to drive conveniently everywhere, and I’m not in favor of saying “to hell with the suburbanites and their cars.” Mainly because lots of the cars driving on the one-way pairs in Indianapolis belong to people who live inside the city limits.

    Alon, in Columbus they built more freeways inside its ring road to/from downtown than Indy did. Columbus has two segments north of downtown, two east, one south and one west; Indy has one east, one west, one south, and one northwest. Indy built one-way arterial pairs through its urban core in addition to its two alpha streets, Meridian (old US31, Indiana’s central N-S spine) and Washington (National Road/US40). Those arterials keep most people inside the outer loop off the freeways.

    I am not convinced of the value of re-converting one-way pairs. I think stealing ROW width for bike lanes and streetcars is much more possible; the main east-west pair (Michigan/New York) is separated by 1000 feet or less, about a 3-minute walk. Creating such a wide transit corridor would lead to both densification and intensification of use between the arterials while preserving their usefulness as a relatively convenient in-town commuting route.

    A nearly identical situation exists with the Chestnut/Walnut pair in Philadelphia; it parallels the Market St. subway/elevated line, and it is the most-dense part of Center City and West Philadelphia. Philly didn’t have to reconvert that pair to get dense development. (Plus, it’s way easier and safer for Penn and Drexel students to jaywalk on a one-way.)

  15. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not saying you need two-way streets to have density. Clearly, the Upper East Side manages to have dense development with one-way pairs. The issue is that one-way pairs just don’t seem to interact well with high bus ridership. (Streetcars would be even worse, because ideally their stops should be at big traffic generators). 1000 feet is actually quite long – the one-way pairs in Manhattan range from 700 to 1000 feet.

    As for secondary downtowns: the trend, at least in the early part of the 20th century, was for making them less important, not more. Downtown Brooklyn declined in importance after Brooklyn became part of New York; while early subway and elevated lines were meant to serve both Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, nowadays the focus is just on Manhattan. Similarly, Jersey City and Newark were bustling secondary downtowns but declined in the postwar era.

    That’s not to say they can’t be served by transit well. They can, but it requires some effort to make commuter rail work better, possibly extend the subway, and upzone.

  16. John Morris says:

    Alon Seriously, do you really live in NYC right now which is what I think you said?

    Take a trip to the places I mentioned and tell me what you see. Also study your history of NY transit, road and most importantly zoning policy.

    I was a life long NY resident until 6 years ago and go back pretty often.

    What you will see with even a little study is all of these “downtown” centers and other trying to build themselves up– often in spite of active zoning and other restraints.

    Up until very recently in Bloomberg’s term, almost all of Waterfront Brooklyn and Queens was zoned strictly for industrial uses. In fact , all of Long Island City was zoned that way, give or take a few streets here and there of old residential mixed in and a tiny square of a few blocks at Court House Square where the Citibank built a huge office tower. Every thing else was pretty much grandfathered in.

    Already, even with the zoning there were lots of people trying to stretch and break the zoning codes like artists who were renting studios and putting illegal lofts in Long Island City and all along waterfront Brooklyn.

    In case you don’t know it Williamsburg in Brooklyn is world artist and hipster headquarters. All along that waterfront, people have been breaking the law to convert factories into needed studio and living space as well as a host of “creative class” uses like film and video, recording studios etc.. Take the L to Bedford and walk around sometime. The same thing was happening in Greenpoint and in Dumbo, Red hook, and along the Gowanas Canal.

    Finally, when the zoning laws were changed a torrent of residential high rises went into construction.

    The same kind of thing is going on in Downtown Brooklyn. Metro Tech built by Forest City kicked was built in the 1980’s and included major offices for Chase Manhattan. Much more recently, with zoning changes, huge residential, hotel and other construction was kicked off stretching all the way from Atlantic Ave in the South to the edge of Brooklyn Heights.

    I imagine you have heard of Bruce Ratner’s massive Atlantic Yards project proposed for the area just on the North Western edge of downtown Brooklyn which calls for several million square feet of office space, 60,000 residential apartments, a new Nets stadium and large amounts of retail.

    Maybe all these people and developers are crazy but I’m hardly the first one to be thinking this way. Also, whatever the bad timing and near term results of some the new construction, the earlier things that slipped through the cracks like DUMBO have been very financially successful. Shortages of available residential, retail and office space (legal and illegal) in places like Williamsburg were driving rents to incredible levels.

    As you said, Jersey City, in particular has already shown the potential of multi centered development by putting a big new city right across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. That was what finally got enough people to wake up and open up the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts.

    I was in NYC in November and was very impressed by the new developments in Northern Long Island City and along the Astoria waterfront. Astoria’s business district is busier than I have ever seen it and there are lots of new hotels in the area.

    In fact what you are seeing in Manhattan is the reverse trend in lower Manhattan in particular. Older buildings not well suited for modern class A office space are becoming high end residential and the area is filling up and becoming a 24 hour neighborhood. You can also see more residential stuff happening in and at the edge of the Midtown office district.

    Further up in Harlem, there is retail and office development near 125th st. to mix with all the residential.

    Now, then we come to a huge problem which is that very little affordable residential stuff is being built, not because of lack of demand but because of rent control.

    Even so, one sees tremendous levels of density along almost all the major subway routes most of which is driven by legal and illegal immigrant communities.

  17. John Morris says:

    OK, I think the Atlantic Yards projects calls for not 60,000 apartments but housing for an estimated 60,000 people. It keeps on morphing and changing and is likely to be radically downsized due to the market.

  18. John Morris says:

    Here’s a hokey real estae sales video of about Jersy City.

    According to the video, major high rise office, residential and retail development began along the The Jersey City Water front twenty years ago with the costruction of Excahnge Place.

    You need to get out more.

  19. John Morris says:


    Here’s a video tour of Main Street in Flushing Queens. The end of the number 7 line and NYC’s largest asian hub. Agood example of the kind of organicly driven growth fueled by immigrants. Dense retail, and lots of new office growth here and my guees is the area is still way underbuilt.

  20. Alon Levy says:

    Yes, I live in New York. I’m familiar with all those places. I’ve walked around Williamsburg, both the nice hipster blocks near the L and the Bnei Brak blocks on Flushing Avenue. I know enough hipsters to know what everyone thinks of Williamsburg. And I know Flushing – less well, but I know what it is.

    The part about Atlantic Yards that’s controversial isn’t the building. It’s the corruption. The city’s exercising eminent domain on multiple intact blocks in order to raze them and hand them over to a politically connected developer; simultaneously, the MTA is selling said developer air rights over the railyard for half the assessed value, and moreover is letting the developer pay it in interest-free installments. The land was valued at more than $200 million; Ratner got it for $100 million even though there was a competing bid for $150 million, and now Ratner is only going to pay $20 million now and the rest later.

    The same is true for many of the rezonings in New York. Jane Jacobs’ last published piece was a letter to Bloomberg in opposition to the Greenpoint rezoning, which she said had no community input and went counter to the neighborhood’s own plan for upzoning, which would preserve industrial land.

    The recent growth of some secondary downtowns is really an extension of CBD growth. For example, take Jersey City. The traditional downtown, surrounding Journal Square, is still depressed. The recent growth is on the waterfront, right across from Lower Manhattan, and is dominated by overflow from Manhattan finance. I believe the same is true for Downtown Brooklyn.

    125th Street is a completely different case, coming from the fact that it’s less a secondary downtown than the primary downtown of black New York.

    All over the Rust Belt, the growing city regions are typically the centers of very large CBDs: hence New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago are revitalizing, but Baltimore and Providence are not, and within the cities that are revitalizing growth is starting at the old core. It’s like 19th century urbanization is happening all over again, but this time with hipsters, or the creative class, or however you choose to call them. It’s starting from downtown, and now spilling over to nearby urban neighborhoods; in New York, where this trend is the most mature, a few people are even discovering the urban neighborhoods further out.

  21. John Morris says:

    OK, I’m a bit more convinced. Whatever, you want to call them- Downtowns, CBD’s, Shopping Districts– are reforming and integrating along transit routes and nodes all over the city. A surprising number contain considerable office space. The question is how to build on and allow this process to keep going and connect with each other better.

    As, you correctly said 125th is becoming a CBD for black New York. I would tend to put immigration as the number one driver for a lot of the dense nodes.

    “As for secondary downtowns: the trend, at least in the early part of the 20th century, was for making them less important, not more. Downtown Brooklyn declined in importance after Brooklyn became part of New York; while early subway and elevated lines were meant to serve both Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, nowadays the focus is just on Manhattan. Similarly, Jersey City and Newark were bustling secondary downtowns but declined in the postwar era.”

    This statement really would make people who don’t know the region today think almost dense mixed use groupings are in Manhattan and might have been accurate if you wrote it in 1980. In fact the trend is towards thriving higher density business and shopping districts all over Brooklyn and Queens.

    I wouldn’t describe the Jersey City waterfront as “spillover” from Lower Manhattan. In fact, a high percentage of finance industry offices are now in either, Midtown or Jersey City. It looks like a number of people are living in Manhattan and taking ferries to work in Jersey.

    It’s really how important to understand how this is happening in spite of every city policy working against this for the last 50 years.(And Jersey was much worse) When people break the law on the scale they did to live in places like Williamsburg, it indicates some pretty huge demand. When the most distinctive landmark in a neighborhood is massive housing projects like it is in Williamsburg, you know what the city thinks of your neighborhood and it’s future.

  22. jmb27 says:

    Predatory Lending is a major contributor to the economic turmoil we are currently experiencing.

    Here is an example of what I am talking about:
    Scott Veerkamp / Predatory Lending (Franklin Township School Board Member.)

    Please review this information from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley regarding deceptive lending practices:
    “Steering payments were made to brokers who enticed unsuspecting homeowners into deceptive and expensive mortgages. These secret bonus payments, often called Yield Spread Premiums, turned home mortgages into a SCAM.”

    The Center for Responsible Lending says YSP “steals equity from struggling families.”
    1. Scott collected nearly $10,000 on two separate mortgages using YSP and junk fees. 2. This is an average of $5,000 per loan. 3. The median value of the properties was $135,000. 4. Clearly, this type of lending represents a major ripoff for consumers.

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