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Friday, May 28th, 2010

Replay: Creative Destruction Is Real

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

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

The positives are very real of course. In aggregate we are much better off for all of the advances that we’ve had as a country. People who think life was better in the past, I think, mostly think life was better in a past that never actually existed. Or they imagine that they would be part of the more privileged in that past without considering that they might be among the unlucky. But there are many very negative consequences to innovation too. Entire industries that used to exist now no longer do. Companies that couldn’t reinvent themselves for a new era often failed. This had both a financial and human toll. There’s no need for Midwesterners to dwell too much on this as they know it all too well from personal experience or front line observation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally ran on June 11, 2009.

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff Delivers Tough Love to Transit Advocates

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, in a recent address that drew heated debate, gave some tough love to transit advocates by telling them to get over their infatuation with rail, and to focus on maintaining and operating the system we’ve got vs. expanding it.

Rail vs. Bus

Here’s Rogoff on rail:

Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear. One is this — Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a “special” bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet. Once you’ve got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap. Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.

A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects. Earlier I pointed out that our new estimate for the deferred maintenance backlog for the entire transit universe is roughly $78 billion. But you should know that fully 75 percent of that figure is to replace rail assets….. Communities deciding between bus and rail investments need to stare those numbers in the face. Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost for shiny new rails now. But they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.

Rogoff made an overly-glib remark about painting buses that some have pounced on. Clearly, Bus Rapid Transit is more than just a different color paint. But Rogoff is right on that BRT can provide much better service levels than POBS (Plain Old Bus Service) at a fraction of the cost of rail.

And actually, POBS service can be very attractive to riders too, when it operates on appropriately chosen routings, at good frequency and reliability. The Chicago Transit Authority is famed for its ‘L’ system, but it’s a little known fact that its bus network far outdraws rail – to the tune of 100+ million riders per year.

Even New York City, the ultimate appropriate American market for rail transit, is looking to do a lot more with bus. I was privileged to see NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn speak recently, and when someone asked her about bus vs. rail, she pretty much said you’ve got to a hard look at bus service because rail timeframes are very long and the costs are very high. Her department doesn’t run transit, but they are doing street projects to make buses operate better. If NYC is making a big bus push, there’s no reason most other places shouldn’t.

Which reminds me that most of the stridently anti-bus positions seem to come from smaller cities, not the biggest cities like NYC, Chicago, or SF where almost everyone rides the bus. But those smaller places are precisely the cities that are least suited to rail. I wrote the reasons why in my 2007 piece, “Why Rail Transit Is a Bad Idea for Indianapolis.”

Of course there are good candidate corridors for rail. New York has several of those underway too. And Rogoff said that as well. But clearly as advocates we need to get over the “bus bad, rail good” mentality that is too often prevalent and take a hard look at what the most appropriate and cost effective way is to make transit happen fast – and to keep is sustainable for the long haul.

New vs. Existing

Here’s Rogoff on the matter of running what we’ve got vs. building new:

I meet with a great many transit general managers. While these meetings are all different, they often follow a certain pattern. I start off the meeting by asking how things are going. They express gratitude for the new Recovery Act funds but then go on to explain that the downturn in municipal revenues, the downturn in sales tax receipts, the cutbacks in the city and state levels, has necessitated service cuts. Sometimes we talk about serious service cuts of 20 percent or more. We talk about: route reductions, layoffs, furloughs, significant chunks of capital reinvestment being deferred as they use Federal capital dollars for preventive maintenance to close operating gaps. It’s all very grim.

But then we get to the second part of the meeting. The consultants start to get excited and the glossy brochures come out. And the next thing you know, the general manager wants to talk about their new plans for expansion — the spanking new rail service to communities not yet served….At times like these, it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the President’s goals for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases? Does it really advance our economic goals in any sustainable way? Are we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren? Might it make more sense for us to put down the glossy brochures, roll up our sleeves, and target our resources on repairing the system we have?

Again, some pounced on the point that the feds don’t fund operations, only capital, so there are separate buckets, etc., etc. True – and that’s one reason I wanted to quote the extended passage where he does talk about diverting capital funds to operations. Also, local dollars are fungible and many cities have significant tax levies earmarked for expansion, and/or never established appropriate operating reserves.

Still, I think the critics have a point. Want agencies to stop coming to the FTA with requests for new rail lines when the existing system is collapsing? Stop encouraging that bad behavior. It just so happens one of the major funding programs is called “New Starts.” As the name implies, it can only be used for new service, not for rehabbing existing. If there is money available earmarked solely for expansion, don’t be surprised if people go after it. It’s not like forgoing the application will reduce the deficit. Somebody’s going to get that money.

Interestingly, fully $50B of the nation’s entire $78B repair backlog is accounted for by only the top seven rail operators. The other 690 rail and bus operators combined only add up to $28B, showing how concentrated transit system intensity is in the nation’s largest cities – a political problem right there. Most places don’t have aging rail systems to repair – hence the built in bias for New Starts type programs.

The federal transit funding is extraordinarily baroque. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the various pots of highway-related money, but transit is a labyrinth of Section 2FX38S-SubchapterJ9 type funding programs, all set aside for different stuff. I know one particular small transit agency that recently spent $300,000 on a study to ask its riders what they wanted while it was gearing up for a major service reduction, and which has a bus fleet with numerous problems like broken air conditioners – just because it could get a federal grant to pay for it. I can tell you want riders want. They want buses…clean, well maintained buses…that come…on time. The money this agency frittered away on a survey would have bought a new bus. What a waste.

I’d like to suggest Rogoff make a major push with Congress to radically simplify this. I don’t know if you need to get to one category, but more flexibility is clearly key. Because as it stands now the core competency of some transit agencies appears to be rent seeking, not transportation. It’s like a lot of non-profits that chase project specific grants that distract from their core mission. We’ve got to stop doing that.

Also, if this is what the feds want, there needs to be a clear policy and set of guidelines that favor “fix it first” and “keep it running.” This means money needs to be apportioned this way. It means money for expansion ought to be tied to a credible, long term plan to sustain the system on an operating and capital basis, and the existing system being maintained and operated appropriately.

And I would suggest that the feds establish a “truth in budgeting” rule. Transit agencies, like most government entities, run their books on a cash basis, with an operating budget and a capital budget. But this means non-cash expenses like depreciation – which is huge in a capital intensive business like transit – aren’t appropriately accounted for. The books look balanced every year, right up to the minute the system falls apart.

Transit agencies ought to aggressively publicize financial statements based on private sector GAAP as a supplement to their governmental budgeting. If we took a look at an income statement that recorded depreciation and such, I think we’d find most transit systems operating at a huge loss every year. This is one way to open some eyes.

Lastly, the feds need to make a huge push on bringing down the sky high prices of transit construction and operations in the US. City Journal just did fabulous article on Madrid’s brand new, low cost subway system. Now City Journal is a right leaning publication to be sure, but many have noticed how US costs are far higher than overseas. Frequent blog commenter Alon Levy posted some figures previously on how even in Tokyo deep bore subway construction is cheaper than in New York. Seoul has gotten some very attractive bids on subways recently. Clearly something is wrong here. I previously addressed this matter with regards to Chicago’s overly expensive rail expansion projects in a previous posting.

The State and Local Challenge

Back to this notion that the answer is to have the feds subsidize operations too, a $2 billion bill to do just that was recently introduced in Congress. As much as I think agencies ought to have the flexibility to use federal funds for operations, a federal operating bailout of transit agencies would be a mistake because it would let state and local government off the hook for all the actions they’ve failed to take to make their own systems better and introduce more rational operations.

Yes, transit agencies have experienced funding shortfalls that they cannot be blamed for because of the recession. However, look all over the place and find a litany of governance and other issues that are clearly within the sphere of state and local control. Consider:

  • New York. Mayor Bloomberg put forward a very sensible plan to implement congestion pricing on bridges into Manhattan in order to provide funds for transit, similar to the very successful London congestion charge. It was shot down in Albany due to the vagaries of New York politics. I don’t know all the details, but apparently some people didn’t like the idea of tolls on the East River bridges that are currently free. Now this failure might not be Bloomberg’s fault – he doesn’t even run the city’s transit agency, the state does – but it is hard to see why, if New York won’t implement a solution that is readily at hand, the feds should take action. Or why if New Yorkers don’t want to pay tolls for New York transit, the rest of America should have to pay taxes.
  • Chicago. The state of Illinois has decided that seniors, even multi-millionaires, should ride transit free, a change implemented just recently and one that costs transit agencies tens of millions of dollars per year. The commuter rail agency, Metra, was for the past decade run by an executive director who had his hand in the till. It continues to operate like a 19th century railroad and resists any innovation fiercely. They refused to accept credit cards until the legislature pressured them to do so. They refuse to install wi-fi on their trains even though airlines can do it on planes and MegaBus can do it on their motorcoach fleet. Again, it’s not clear to me why the federal taxpayers should have to ante up so that wealthy Illinois seniors can ride transit for free and to facilitate obsolete business practices.
  • San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area has 26+ separate transit agencies, clearly too many. Muni’s drivers have raises written into the city charter and are guaranteed to be the 2nd or 3rd highest paid in the country, no matter what. They also have the right to a number of “unexcused absences” where they can simply not show up for work or even walk off the job without being punished. Muni’s cost per mile of operation is nearly double comparable agencies. Again, this looks like a region that could do a lot for itself before asking everyone else to step up.

I won’t pretend these are easy problems to solve, but if the feds simply hand these agencies money to get them through the recession, rationality will be even harder to achieve. The pressure of this recession is one of the most powerful forces driving for previously unthinkable state and local government reform. If anything, the feds ought to be delivering a tough message to state and local government that reforms need to happen before money is delivered. We’ve got to keep the pressure on for reform.

Conclusion

I for one hope that Rogoff’s speech does prompt a re-examination of these matters. We should be looking at more bus solutions. We should prioritize fixing it first. We’ve also got work to do at the federal level to encourage good behavior by reforming the funding programs, and to bring down costs. And also at the state and local level to reform the way transit is governed and operated to convert it into the essential public service that it clearly is and needs to be.

Other people had different takes on the matter. You might be interested in what Yonah Freemark had to say over at the Transport Politic and Jarret Walker’s take over at Human Transit.

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

City Profile: St. Louis by UrbanSTL

[ I write about some cities more than others because I know them better. In an effort to broaden my geographic scope, I'm kicking off today what I hope to be the first in an on going series of city profiles written by a leading urbanist blogger in the city in question. First up is St. Louis with a great piece by Alex Ihnen of urbanSTL. Be sure to click on over and check out his blog and discussion forums - Aaron. ]

The popular image of St. Louis is deeply flawed. The numbers are cliché. Crime, population, education, all largely red-herrings. St. Louis metro has 1,000,000 more residents than Las Vegas, more than Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis and San Antonio. St. Louis is safer than Salt Lake City, Blacksburg, VA and Toledo, OH. The “city” (1/6 of the metro population) is smaller than Tulsa and Wichita, more “dangerous” than Gary, Indiana and the police and public schools are controlled by the state. Together, the city and county would produce the 6th largest city in the nation. This combination of a small city in a big region skews statistics for the city only.

Much of the image and numbers are an ugly legacy of St. Louis and Missouri politics. The state took control of the police force during the Civil War for fear of insurrection. The city thought building roads and other amenities in the County to be an “undue burden” and the two separated in 1876. This, and subsequent decisions led to 91 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County today. Fractured government has amplified the worst externalities of local control, racially biased municipal housing covenants and zoning served to racially segregate the St. Louis area, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue is forgone in an effort to attract car dealerships and the next Wal-Mart to one side of the road as opposed to the other. Such issues will continue to exert influence on the future of St. Louis.

But St. Louis, to its residents and any eyes-open visitor is something else entirely. St. Louis is: an increasingly lively downtown with a wonderful sculpture garden, what may be the world’s best playground at City Museum and a National Park; one of the nation’s largest urban parks with an incredible art museum, history museum, science center, and zoo, all of which you can attend for free; home to world-renowned universities and research facilities such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, and others. St. Louis is a center for plant science research with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Danforth Plan Science Center, and Monsanto.


City Museum – Photo by Serolynne

But then that all sounds as though it could come from the St. Louis Regional Civic Organization for Progress, Development and Synergy. OK, that’s a fictitious organization. More than any other place I’ve been, St. Louisians do not define their city by its institutions or attractions, but by the life one can lead here. The small things and small places define St. Louis. Somehow, many of these things seem hidden. With just more than five years now spent here, I have only glimpsed the wealth of place St. Louis possesses.

Lafayette Square is one such place. So unexpected when I moved to St. Louis, and so quintessentially historic that it successfully doubled as a Chicago street of brownstones in the movie Up in the Air. With million-dollar Victorian homes Lafayette Square isn’t subtle. For that we go to Benton Park, McKinley Heights, Tower Grove South, and more, all distinct neighborhoods, all incredibly intact. Individually, each one offers a great place to live and a great destination to visit; collectively they create an incomparable city.


Lafayette Square

The private streets and mansions of corporate titans of industries past have received due recognition, and they’re a sight to see, but the city is built with red brick. The residents of the city live in red brick. In fact a feature-length documentary titled “Brick by Chance and by Fortune” is in full production. St. Louis grew consistently fast in the first decades of the 20th century and as a result is seems each block and each neighborhood offers a clear narrative on development. The definitive source detailing this story is “St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape” by Eric Sandweiss. However, anyone can travel from Soulard to University City via Fox Park, Compton Heights, The Grove, and The Hill and witness the story of St. Louis evolving before their eyes.


Fox Park – Photo by Mark Groth

Today, many are investing in these neighborhoods, the site of rehabs is common and home prices are going up. One place that may serve to highlight the changes in the urban core of St. Louis is The Grove, aka Forest Park Southeast. Home prices have doubled in the past decade and storefronts vacant for twice as long are springing to life.

Small improvements are everywhere. St. Louis is being rebuilt brick by brick, the older corner stores are seeing new life, century-old homes are being rehabbed to the highest standards and the mansions of the city’s private streets once again command multi-million dollar prices. Retail storefronts from Morganford to Locust are coming back to life and warehouses suitable for loft conversion are today in short supply. Historic preservation has been the engine of the St. Louis renaissance and the progressive state historic tax credit program is largely to thank.


Compton Heights – Photo by Flickr/matthewdiller

Civic institutions are adding to the development boom. The central St. Louis Public Library is beginning a $50M renovation. The St. Louis Art Museum is adding a $130M David Chipperfield designed wing and renovating the original 1904 World’s Fair building. Saint Louis University has added a $66M research building to its medical campus. The nascent CORTEX research district is home to Solae’s new $40M corporate headquarters and a collaborative $36M research facility. The adjacent Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical campus has seen incredible growth as well. The $235M BioMed 21 has just been completed, along with several other significant buildings. Barnes-Jewish Healthcare is currently constructing a $75M headquarters adjacent to the medical campus and a new $170M Shriners Hospital is soon to break ground nearby. Finally, at the Washington University Danforth Campus, at the western end of Forest Park, a building boom continues. Several $100M have brought a new student union, 600,000 square feet of lab and teaching space for the School of Engineering, new student residence halls and other academic buildings in the past decade.


Rendering of BioMed 21

Preservationists and urbanists often focus on organic growth while single “transformational” projects are shunned. After all, here in St. Louis the “silver bullet” projects are infamous. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project stood for fewer than 20 years, from 1954-1972. When the complex was imploded Charles Jencks, an architectural historian, concluded it was “the day Modern architecture died.” The 57 acre site remains vacant today. St. Louis’ enthusiasm for “urban renewal” projects and the success in receiving federal funding has left many scars on the landscape. Multiple Interstates severed neighborhoods and separated the city from its river, the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was demolished and the area remains incredibly underdeveloped, the 18-block Gateway Mall was clear-cut and remains mostly unplanned and underutilized, save a recent project. Even Saarinen’s iconic Arch and the surrounding Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a National Park, is unfinished. There are plans and proposals to correct some of this, such as an international competition to redo the Arch grounds and a citizen group named City to River looking to reconnect the city with the Arch grounds and river by removing I-70. Recent projects like City Garden have shown how to do major civic projects right.


City Garden – Photo Flickr/SenzEnina

Yet the biggest idea by far for St. Louis is Paul McKee’s $8B vision for the near North Side. Dubbed “NorthSide,” McKee has purchased more than 1,000 city lots, most measuring the familiar 25ft x 126ft of the common St. Louis residential lot. The city owns another 1,000 lots that would presumably be part of the project as well. The project area is more than 1,500 acres and includes plans for four job centers, one at the arterial roads on the north side of the project area, one at a new I-64/22nd Street interchange, one at the landing of the new Mississippi River Bridge and one at the Pruitt-Igoe site. The only project of this size in the U.S. is the Stapleton development in Denver, CO. However, Stapleton was built on the site of a vacated airport and not in a central city with many remaining historic structures, thousands of residents and infrastructure dating from the 1880’s. The North Side project has been very controversial and its sheer size makes it a daunting proposition.

From 700 square foot brick shotgun rehabs to an $8B development vision, St. Louis is practical and ambitious. That civic optimism and the pulse of St. Louis may be best reflected by the local blogging community. There are independent blogs posting weekly and covering Mid-Century Modern architecture, transportation, the city’s neighborhoods, downtown, preservation, one promoting the city’s continued progress, one lamenting its loses, one comparing St. Louis to “elsewhere” and on and on. As mentioned above, blogger Michael Allen exposed the NorthSide plan on his blog Ecology of Absence before anyone else was paying attention. Built St. Louis is a veritable photographic encyclopedia of the city. Steve Patterson’s Urban Review STL has been a staple for years. Several others serve as catch-all blogs, attempting to offer a wide-view of urbanism in St. Louis. My own writings appear at UrbanSTL. Few cities enjoy this depth and breadth of interest. To me, it’s indicative of St. Louis’s “wealth of place.”


Benton Park – Photo by Mark Groth

St. Louis is witnessing incredible development, but some big challenges remain. The most serious challenge is political and rooted in an 1876 vote by the city to secede from St. Louis County, though there is regional collaboration on some issues such as museum and zoo taxing districts, and transit.

The economic health of the city and region will obviously dictate future growth and redevelopment. It has been estimated that it will take eight years for the region to recover the jobs lost to this point in the Great Recession. And irrespective of the current downturn, St. Louis has experienced flat job growth for years. But increasing, local leaders are talking about “bending the curve” and changing the local economic dynamics in order to exceed growth projections. Among the initiatives of local economic
development are seeking to become the premier location for plant
science research and businesses, and an ambitious plan to establish St.
Louis as the principal Chinese air freight gateway to the US between
the coasts. The ultimate hope is that several Chinese companies would locate US headquarters in St. Louis, that high-tech assembly and production facilities would open in the newly established and greatly enlarged “foreign trade zone” adjacent to Lambert Airport.

St. Louis will be a great place to live and an engaging city whether or not these and other efforts come to fruition, but the city needs to bend the curve on growth if the historic built environment of the city is to be saved intact, see significant infill and be repopulated. Much of what is “wrong” with St. Louis is perception, by locals and those looking outside-in. Increased regional cooperation, support for mass transit, a new Arch grounds and economic development efforts will all contribute to changing perception both locally and elsewhere.

For coverage of St. Louis urbanism and the projects and issues referenced here go to the urbanSTL blog at www.urbanstl.com. You can also follow us at @urbanSTL on Twitter.

Active St. Louis urbanism blogs:
Ecology of Absence: ecoabsence.blogspot.com
Urban Review STL: urbanreviewstl.com
Dotage St. Louis: stldotage.blogspot.com
B.E.L.T: beltstl.com
St. Louis City Talk: stlouiscitytalk.com
St. Louis/Elsewhere: stlelsewhere.blogspot.com
Gateway Streets: gatewaystreets.org
St. Louis Patina: stlouispatina.blogspot.com
Downtown St. Louis Business: downtownstlbiz.blogspot.com
Built St. Louis: builtstlouis.blogspot.com
STL Rising: stlrising.blogspot.com
Vanishing STL: vanishingstl.blogspot.com
St. Louis Energized: stlenergized.blogspot.com
Exquisite Struggle: exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Next American Suburb: Carmel, Indiana

The fate of the suburb is one of the most important issues facing Americas metro areas. While many have decried their environmental unsustainability, even those who don’t agree on that should worry greatly about their demographic, economic, and fiscal sustainability. As early inner ring suburbs across America increasingly face decay, poverty, and crime, it is clear that the allure wears off these places once they are no longer shiny and new and people can simply move to another, newer suburb on the fringe that is. If most of today’s boomburgs think their fate is any different, they’ll be for a rude shock 30 years or so down the road. Most suburbs, though different in form from what she described, are basically Jacobsian “gray belts”, and follow her observation that as a rule only the upscale hold their own over time.

But across America suburbs old and new are looking at different paths, some based in New Urbanism, others in different approaches, to try to build a different product, one that will still be worth living and doing business in when the growth wave passes them over.

One of those places is Carmel, Indiana (pronounced like the Biblical Carmel). It’s a classic upscale, traditionally car-based suburb (meaning not a streetcar style suburb) of about 80,000 people north of Indianapolis, roughly similar to many other prestige business suburbs around the country like Naperville, IL; Mason or Dublin, OH; or Cool Springs, TN. They have one of the most ambitious agendas of suburban retrofit in the country, taking what was once a typical sprawling town in a more urban, dense, mixed use, walkable direction.

I wrote a three part series on Carmel in 2007 called “Leadership in Action” you may want to review. Most material in this post is new and does not repeat the previous installments.

Think of this as “Part Four: Progress Report” in which I’ll share some current initiatives of interest.

City Center

This original core of Carmel prior to its big growth phase was a mix of industrial and strip malls, most of which were in advanced states of dilapidation. This has been an area of focus as the city has tried to reinvent it as a true regional town center. One of the dead strip malls was acquired by the city and is being turned into the mixed use Carmel City Center project. Various townhomes and offices have already been built, but the core of the project is a large, mixed use retail/office/hotel/condo/greenspace/theater complex is that is nearing its grand opening. Here’s a picture of the main commercial structure:

One can disagree with the aesthetics. But putting an eight story tower where a parking lot used to be is clearly a bigtime move in a more dense direction – and you’ll see that these structures follow proper urban form. And even with the style, which isn’t to my personal taste, I can respect that they’ve made a deliberate and considered choice.

Behind this building is a new $150 million, 1,600 seat concert hall called the Palladium.

As you can see, it’s done in a neo-classical style with limestone facing. It is designed after the Villa Rotunda in Italy. The architect is the same person who designed the Schermerhorn Center in Nashville, Tennessee. In effect, a suburb in Indianapolis is building a concert hall to the standards of a major urban downtown. There’s no real anchor tenant for the building, though the Indianapolis Symphony has promised to play a handful of dates there. Michael Feinstein is the artistic director, which should give you an idea of what they are thinking. (The pink color is a temporary reflection off some exposed roof sealant. And this is the back side of the building. There’s a more elaborate ceremonial entrance on the other side).

The City Center complex will also house a new, separate $10 million home for the Indianapolis Civic Theater (the oldest community theater in the United States), and another 250 seat theater space. Carmel is betting a lot of chips on the arts, but we’ll have to see if a suburban city will ultimately be willing to present art of serious ambition vs. just safe crowd pleasers.

Old Town

About half a mile north of City Center is Carmel’s original downtown, the Old Town area, now called the “Arts and Design District”. This newly opened building there is the Indiana Design Center, which will house several design-related firms.

Just around the corner on Main St., several new mixed use structures have gone up in recent years. Here is the latest one under construction. It’s a 75 unit upscale apartment complex with ground floor retail and an underground parking structure with public parking.

Yes, this is being done in a retro-Second Empire style.

Village of West Clay

On the west side of Carmel is a classic style New Urbanist master planned community called the Village of West Clay. Here’s a picture to give you a flavor of it:

Multi-Use Sidepaths

Click over to my previous series for more new urbanist photos. But it’s time to move on to transportation. Carmel has made a big commitment to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness. One way it is doing this is by upgrading its old two-lane country style streets into parkways. Rather than bike lanes and sidewalks, however, Carmel is using its suburban ROW advantage to instead provide fully separated bike and pedestrian access through 8-10 foot wide sidepaths on both side of the street. Here’s an example on Towne Rd.

This is much better for the numerous children in town, who don’t have to try to bike on the street. This photo shows a rare four-lane road in Carmel. The city has established as a policy not widening roads where possible. Instead, they have focused on upgrading intersections with modern roundabouts and leaving the roads as mostly two lanes, though with generous lane widths and a landscaped median (and sidepaths of course). Most of the congestion on these roads was intersection and left-turn related, and this solved the problem without adding mainline capacity. Here’s a sample:

Obviously this would look better if it weren’t winter.

The multi-use sidepath has emerged as a sort of suburban standard in Indianapolis. Many of them have been installed, even in cases where the actual road hasn’t been upgraded.

Trail Grade Separations

The Monon Trail is a rail-trail that links Carmel and points north with downtown Indianapolis. Like many local projects, it was controversial when proposed – the city had to pursue over 250 condemnations to acquire the right of way due to the easement process the railroad had used to build and neighbor opposition – but that now no one can imagine life without. The picture at the top of this post is the Monon Trail at Main St. I said there aren’t that many four lane roads, but where the trail does cross one, the city grade separated it, usually via a tunnel, but in this case at Carmel Dr. with a bridge.

Again, this is all about making it safer and more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians, especially children. In case you are wondering, there’s a fairly long slope to that bridge, so the grade isn’t an issue.

Roundabout Interchanges

I mentioned roundabouts earlier. These modern roundabouts aren’t like old school traffic circles. Google them up to find out why they are safer and better than stop signs and signalized intersections. Carmel is the US leader in these, with over 65 already built. That represents about 5% of the entire US total, though as these become more popular that will no doubt go down.

But Carmel recently upped its game with roundabout interchanges. These are similar to a compressed diamond or SPUI, but instead of stoplights, they use a roundabout (or roundabout pair) to control traffic. Carmel didn’t invent these or even implement the first one in the US, but it is implementing the largest scale deployment to date as it wraps up work converting six signaled intersections on Keystone Ave. to roundabout interchanges. (Several more are to come on nearby US 31. Carmel has even consulted with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on a major roundabout interchange program there).

This was originally a state controlled four lane divided highway with a frankly rural design characteristic. INDOT wanted to widen it to six lanes but leave stop lights in place. Carmel had a better idea: give us the road the money you were going to spend on it, we’ll add zero lanes, but convert those stop lights to roundabout interchanges to make the road safer for traffic, provide a safer path for pedestrians and cyclists to cross over Keystone, and reduce the barrier created by the highway. Here’s a picture of the completed interchange at 126th St.

If you’re asking yourself, “Where’s Keystone?”, it was depressed under 126th St. to minimize its impact on the neighborhood. This is the controlling roundabout on 126th St. It is a single roundabout compressed in the middle to create a dumbbell shape. This is a simpler design that among other things means you only need one bridge over Keystone and enables extremely tight ramps that minimize ROW impact. This idea was borrowed from Mallorca, Spain. This photo shows Keystone under 126th and the extremely tight ramps. Note the construction truck on the ramp on the left of the photo.

You also no doubt noticed the interesting staining on the retaining walls. This is part of an overall high level aesthetic treatment. For example, the human scaled decorative light standards on the roundabout vs. INDOT preferred high mast tower lighting. Here you’ll see more of the careful thought and attention to detail that went into this design.

You’ll have to click to enlarge, but the emblem in the middle of the bridge rail is the city seal, which I think it is nice touch. Also, given the general ye olde thyme theme in Carmel, I was pleasantly surprised by their choice of fonts here.

The other interchanges are similar enough to provide a common design feel but different enough to provide interest. Here’s a shot of the 106th St. interchange, showing both the difference in color and the coloring on the tilted cutouts that are only visible from certain angles – sure to surprise and delight.

Risks and Conclusion

Again, if you want to read more, see my previous three part series. On the whole, I’m very impressed with what Carmel is trying to do in terms of new urbanism, pedestrian and bicycle design, and trying to build an environment with long term staying power.

Also, this is a regional amenity. Clearly, a nice suburb is no substitute for a vibrant urban core. But a great city needs great suburbs. In the ever more competitive world we live in today, every part of a region needs to know its role on the team and bring its A-game. And let’s face it, not all people are going to want to live in the city. Some people, whether that be corporate executives who want estate style living or many families or others, will always prefer a suburban environment. So having a suburb like Carmel that is on the leading edge of practice in many ways is a competitive asset for the whole region. Frankly, there is a risk that as places like Carmel grow too successful, they will suck up too much life out of the city. It does worry me. But I think that means we need to work harder to bring the city up, not that we should cut the suburbs down.

Not all has been positive. A vocal minority hates the direction the city has gone under Mayor Jim Brainard, and while they have as yet proven a minority, they’ve grown in strength and there are more battles over these projects than there were a few years back. The city council is more aggressive these days, and being a checks and balances kind of guy, I think that’s probably healthy.

The current economy, particularly against the backdrop of a state like Indiana, also has a lot of people questioning the spending levels. And there have been some embarrassing financial screwups. The Keystone project was originally estimated to be done with only the money from the state, but costs were higher than anticipated – though still far less than what INDOT could have done the project for. Carmel had to bond about $20 million to finish it – not a minor amount. A community recreation facility called the Monon Center was supposed to be self-supporting but is requiring tax subsidies. Dittos for the operations of the Palladium.

Carmel’s amenity led strategy has paid off in terms of millions of square feet of Class A office and other commercial space. It has the fourth lowest tax rate of any city in the state – one that hasn’t gone up in over a decade – and the second most affluent resident base, so clearly financing is not an absolute constraint. But Hoosiers are by nature tight fisted with the public purse, and questions have, rightly in my view, been asked about some of these overruns.

But perhaps the best verdict on Carmel was rendered by the über-spending hawk Gov. Mitch Daniels. He personally built a home in Carmel shortly after getting elected governor and after the transformation plan was well over way. Daniels voted with his feet – that’s the ultimate endorsement. If Mitch Daniels is ok enough with the spending to live there, I’m guessing the rest of the community probably will be too.

The other storm cloud on the horizon is schools. The state took over all school operations funding as part of a property tax reform program. But in the last budget the state implemented a funding formula that gave upscale Indianapolis suburbs the least amount of money in the entire state. Carmel’s highly regarded school district received the fourth lowest per pupil funds of any district in the entire state. That’s hardly a recipe for economic development. As no doubt the legislature intended, Carmel and other municipalities had to implement special local tax referendums to keep from implementing draconian cuts. In effect, the state outsourced the painful and messy business of raising taxes to these local governments. It was a de facto geographically targeted tax increase to help the state balance its budget. A collection of these suburbs is presently suing the state over the matter. Regardless of how it ends up, this is an ominous sign for a state that is ostensibly hanging its hat on new economy businesses, when these places are where it is centered in the state, where the labor force that powers it lives, in a region that supplies 80% of the state’s economic growth and a significant slug of surplus state taxes.

Another risk is that the region takes the wrong lesson from Carmel and writes off what it has accomplished as merely being for rich people. While “the nicest stuff for the people with the most money” is the easy default strategy for the upscale suburb, there are many lessons around a civic strategy anchored in a vision of how to differentiate and position a community for the long term future that are more broadly applicable. That doesn’t mean cloning Carmel. Again, every town needs to know its role on the team. Not everyone can be the quarterback. Not everybody is a linebacker. Not everybody is a center. Different towns need to find their niche and play their role as good as it can be played. One positive sign: the old industrial suburb of Speedway is leveraging many of the same techniques in an attempt to create a more year-round motorsports destination. But that will have to be the subject of a future post, perhaps.

More on the Suburbs

Retrofitting Suburbia

Building Suburbs That Last

End Property Tax Collection in Arrears
The Power of Greenfield Economics

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

“For me, as a graphic designer, I cannot live outside of a city. I have to be in big cities. I like the energy that comes out of them, I like the noise, even the dirt and grime. I like the fact that they are places where humans have to struggle to live, to compete. I don’t like super-clean or super-sanitised environments, or architecture. You have beautiful architecture and ugly architecture. Cities embody a kind of chaos, which is a thing of beauty.” – Philippe Apeloig via This Big City

Come find out what over 3,000 people already know by following me on Twitter. I send out about 10-15 tweets a day with the coolest links about urbanism and design so you can keep up with what’s going on in the world. You can also follow my Google Reader feed too. On that I usually only share less than three items per day, mostly architecture and design related.

Also, I was recently a guest on the Explore Cincinnati podcast, along with Randy Simes of Urban Cincy. So click over to listen to us talking about a variety of urban issues, not all Cincinnati related.

Top Stories

The Atlantic is doing is special project this month called The Future of the City. There’s a huge amount of great stuff there, ranging from an interview with Andres Duany that’s already stirring up trouble, to an archived piece by Robert Moses from 1962. This is a must to check out.

1. Lee Hsien Loong: Singapore and Human Capital – Mr. Lee is the Prime Minister of Singapore. This is the text of his remarks at the Singapore Human Capital Summit (via Brewed Fresh Daily).

2. John Podhoretz: New York Then and Now. This article in the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary tells an incredible tale of what it was like to grow up on the Upper West Side during its 70’s nadir. If you want to know how far New York has come, read this article.

3. KC Star: Immigrants find old careers don’t transfer to new life in America

4. Richard Longworth: Brookings and the Midwest

5. City Mayors: Top Level City Domains – Apparently the new TLD system will enable city specific top level domains (e.g., “.paris”, “.nyc”, etc). This article explores the potential of that.

Best States for Business

Chief Executive magazine released their 2010 list of the best and worst states for business. Here’s how Midwest states stacked up:

  • #16 – Indiana
  • #17 – Iowa
  • #26 – Missouri
  • #31 – Minnesota
  • #42 – Wisconsin
  • #44 – Ohio
  • #46 – Illinois
  • #49 – Michigan

Naturally Texas was #1 and California was last. Illinois has fallen 29 places in the last five years.

Lawsuit Climate

The Institute for Legal Reform – obviously an advocacy group, so caveat emptor – published their 2010 Lawsuit Climate rankings for states. Here is how Midwest states stacked up:

  • #4 – Indiana
  • #5 – Iowa
  • #11 – Minnesota
  • #22 – Wisconsin
  • #29 – Ohio
  • #30 – Michigan
  • #45 – Illinois

Chicago/Cook County, Illinois was cited as the worst jurisdiction in the country, even worse than infamous Madison County, IL (only fifth worst).

World and National Roundup

Yahoo: Megacities of the World – a glimpse of how we’ll live tomorrow

Dan Steinbock: Shanghai: The Rise of the Global City

Ahmad Rafay Alam: Tea, Anyone? – A discussion of the impact of urban form on the cultural and intellectual life of Lahore.

George Monbiot: The case for UK high speed rail has not been made

Marketing Interactive: Can Singapore Brand Itself As a Nation?

Chicago Tribune: Battery company recharges debate about US manufacturing

Harry Moroz: Stop the War on Our Cities

Joel Kotkin: Immigration is U.S.

Dome Magazine: Brain Gain: Immigration key to future prosperity

WSJ: How Geeks and Their Transit Apps Get Us Around

Ed Glaeser: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes

The Economist: In Praise of Boise

WashPo: Commercial property owners may be asked to pay for part of streetcar project.

New London Doubledecker Buses

London has unveiled a new design for its iconic red double deck Routemaster buses. It’s a pretty sleek design on the whole I think:

DIY Bike Signage

I mentioned before guerrilla bus shelters, now GOOD Magazine tells us about guerrilla bike signage. Fed up with a lack of progress in making roads safer for bikes, some folks are taking matters into their own hands.

Bike Advocacy in London

Broken Sidewalk points us at a nice 40 second bike advocacy video from Transport for London. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

If you click over to the original BS post, he contrasts this with a Chrysler minivan ad using the same music.

More Midwest

Indianapolis and Columbus – Similar Surfaces, Opposite Cores (Urban Out) – Greg Meckstroth compares the two cities in a compelling analysis.

A Brand for High Speed Rail in the Midwest (Urban Milwaukee)

Terry Schwarz on Shrinking Cities (Flint Expatriates)

What Color Ohio’s Economy? (Columbus Dispatch)

Cleveland
In Cleveland, Sports Fans Cheer Until It Hurts (NYT)

Detroit
Detroit to demolish 10,000 abandoned properties (WSJ) – Includes Mitt Romney’s boyhood home.
Ten tips for downsizing Detroit (Free Press)
Detroit leads the way in urban farming (CS Monitor)
Can Detroit Learn From the Rebirth of Grand Rapids? (CNN/Fortune)

Indianapolis
I-70 Shortcut Getting an Obstacle – INDOT is spending $450 million to make it harder to get downtown from the West Side by eliminating the preferred freeway route. I am not aware of another case in US history where a flyover ramp at a freeway-freeway interchange was replaced with a stoplight. It’s a truly stunning step backwards. It also shows that scope reductions, not efficiencies were the likely source of this project coming in under budget. Somebody was asleep at the switch bigtime on this.
Monument Circle and the Legacy of East Liberty (A Place of Sense)

Kansas City
State line status brings cooperation and competition (KC Star)
Sewer upgrade approved (KC Star) – Kansas City next up to spend billions

Louisville
They Tore the Whole Thing Down (Broken Sidewalk) – An entire 4th St. streetscape razed. Sad.

Post Script

A Broken Sidewalk photo of Operation Sidewalk Defense, a group protesting the closure of sidewalks (but not streets of course) during construction projects.

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

New Grass Roots: People for Urban Progress

I’m starting a new feature on the blog today in which I’ll periodically profile great examples of positive urban change coming from the new grass roots. Today I’m featuring People for Urban Progress (PUP) from Indianapolis. In case you don’t read this entire post, please be sure to click over to their Pepsi Refresh challenge page and vote for them to get a $250,000 grant.

One day back when I had an apartment in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood, I popped into the local bike shop, Joe’s Cycles, and saw two people having a conversation with Joe about a project they were working on to make bicycle bags out of reused fabric from the roof of the RCA Dome. I was intrigued and so introduced myself and asked about their project.

The two people turned out to be Maryanne O’Malley and Michael Bricker. They were unhappy that Indianapolis was nowhere on sustainability, had a lousy public transit system, and had a limited design consciousness. They had decided to do something about this by forming an organization called People for Urban Progress (a 501(c)3 non-profit) to try to make real change on all those fronts.

Their first project was super-ambitious. Indianapolis had built the RCA Dome stadium in 1983. Like several others from that era, including the Silverdome in Detroit and the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it featured an inflated roof made out of teflon fabric. The RCA Dome was going to be demolished after a new stadium was built and this roof fabric was destined for the landfill.

PUP saw the opportunity to do something better with this. The Indianapolis parks department had, and has, a nine figure backlog of unfunded maintenance and other capital needs. PUP’s idea was to take the roof fabric from the Dome and repurpose it for items such as shade umbrellas in the parks as low cost upgrades. They wrote up a nine page proposal and showed it to the parks department and others. Fortunately, it was accepted and the demolition contractor, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, and PUP saved the vast majority of the fabric for the parks department.

But PUP wasn’t done yet. They arranged to get some of the fabric for themselves. They cleaned it and worked with local artists in their studio to use the fabric to create super-cool design pursues, wallets, and messenger bags.

Not only are these absolutely first class in design, they are true art objects. Every one of them is hand made and features a totally unique design created by the artist who made it. They are all one of a kinds.

All of the net proceeds from the sale of these products are being used to help pay for repurposing the rescued fabric for parks purposes. This is an innovative way to use part of a reclaimed building to generate funds to reuse the rest of it. This is particularly needed in an era of ultra-tight funding. The bags proved extremely popular, and nearly 1,000 have been sold to date. PUP has used the money to produce a prototype lifeguard stand shade and are awaiting feedback from the parks department before moving forward on production of as much of this and other items as funds allow.

But there is still something more with this project – something important. The RCA Dome wasn’t just another building. It was the building that enabled the city to lure the Colts from Baltimore. It was a venue for gymnastics at more at the Pan Am Games. It played an integral role in the revitalization of downtown. That building meant something to Indianapolis. By buying a Dome wallet or purse, Indy residents can carry around a piece of that history with them. (I have one of the wallets in my pocket now). It’s a spiritual artifact. It’s a memento of that journey and in a very real sense represents the coming of age of the city. The parks part of the project will also spread these reminders throughout the city, almost like the relics of a saint.

So this Dome bag project is:

Sustainability +
Cost effective capital improvements for the parks +
First rate design quality and uniqueness +
Innovative non-profit financing and a public-private partnership +
Creating objects with spiritual meaning

That’s called a Win-Win-Win-Win-Win. It doesn’t get much better than that. How often to you get to stack up that many wins at once? This is an all around incredible project.

If you didn’t know that PUP was the originator of the idea to recycle the Dome roof fabric, don’t feel bad. The city didn’t exactly go out of its way to give them credit for it. That’s disappointing.

What’s more, this should have been a big story. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Minneapolis or Vancouver had done a project like this they would have gotten national coverage for it, in sustainability or design publications if nowhere else.

With some limited exceptions like the art museum – which is run by a New Yorker who actually knows what he’s doing – Indianapolis doesn’t manage to pick up much favorable national coverage. But it’s not because they are Indianapolis and nobody likes them, or because they aren’t cool enough, or because they are located in the Midwest. It’s because the city’s PR is flat out terrible. It isn’t realistic to think a couple of grass roots advocates like Michael and Maryanne can conjure up national press, but the city is spending $275 million on the project of which the Dome replacement is part. You would think they’d make sure they got some nice coverage out of it at least.

Indianapolis has flubbed one opportunity after another to get a positive message out about itself, and this one’s no exception. Of course, it doesn’t help that the community itself far too often doesn’t even recognize the significance of what’s going on. Something important happen right under its nose and it didn’t even register. In this case, even the local media botched the story badly.

PUP has raised some money for the parks, but there’s still a lot more needed to put that fabric to work. In case you didn’t know, Pepsi is giving away a bunch of money every month to various urban projects based on a popular vote. PUP is seeking $250,000 to help with repurposing more of the Dome fabric for parks purposes. So go over to the site and vote for them now. Also, tell your friends. And if you run an Indianapolis based email distribution list, send out a note telling everyone on it to vote too. Ordinarily I wouldn’t pick favorites among my many acquaintances who are trying to get money for cool projects through this, but for my friends Maryanne and Michael, I’ll make an exception.

Here’s a cool video with more information about the project. (If it doesn’t display, click here).

PUP has got many more ideas too. They have been advocating for better public transit, such as by co-hosting an event in their studio with the folks from Indycog. Here’s a video from that event. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

And they are talking with people about trying to get a car share program launched in Indy.

We’ll have to see what PUP thinks up next. Regardless, this small and young but bold organization has already had a major and tangible impact in Indianapolis – and likely beyond. They’ve talked to people in other cities with similar teflon roof domes, so when these stadiums are replaced, I’d be very surprised if the roof isn’t reused. You can thank PUP in Indianapolis for that.

If you are interested in purchasing one of PUP’s Dome products (and new ones like a notebook are on the way), please contact PUP at info@peopleup.org. Their products are available in Indianapolis at Silver in the City, IndySwank, the Indiana State Museum, and at their Murphy Building studio on First Fridays.

Oh, and by the way, that meeting I had with the PUP folks at Joe’s Cycles? That’s one of those serendipitous encounters that supposedly don’t happen in cities like Indianapolis…..

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Is It Game Over for Atlanta?

My latest post is online at New Geography. It’s called “Is It Game Over for Atlanta?

Many of America’s large cities went through a period of hypergrowth before leveling off: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc. Some transitioned to a successful maturity, others did not. Today’s growth stories like Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta will be no different. One day their growth period will end, then we’ll see what they are really made of.

In my piece I outline the evidence that Atlanta might be the first of these to be peaking out, thanks to a surprising plunge in in-migration, a lack of infrastructure investment, declining ambitions, new competition, and a recession-interrupted transformation to a more urban city. Other than for its airport, there’s little reason anyone has to be in Atlanta these days. If Atlanta were a stock, I’d be thinking about shorting it and buying into some of its scrappier regional upstart competition. It’s time for a gut check in the Capital of the New South.

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Richard Herman: Will a Dying Cleveland Finally Turn to Immigrants?

[ A recent Brookings Institution study ranked Cleveland 95 out of 100 in its growth in foreign born population from 2000-2008. During that period, the city of Cleveland actually lost foreign born residents. This despite nearby Columbus being #9 in the country for increasing its Hispanic and Asian populations. Richard Herman, co-author of Immigrant, Inc. explains the imperative of Cleveland embracing immigration - Aaron. ]

Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, who is based in Cleveland, estimates that new census numbers might show Cleveland’s population to be 325,000, a whopping 153,000 drop in 10 years! That would be an average of 15,000 people leaving Cleveland every year.

That’s 1,250 people jumping ship every month,

312 people fleeing the wreckage every week,

45 people evacuating every day, or

2 people running out of Cleveland every hour, 24/7, the whole year, for 10 straight years.

Even conservative estimates have us losing 10 percent of our population this decade, the fastest rate of decline of any major American city (except New Orleans). And still, remarkably, we hear no alarm bells from City Hall, no calls of urgency, just a commitment to stay the course and manage the decline.

While the extent of the exodus is debateable, it’s obvious that Cleveland, a city that once boasted 1 million residents, is not on the bright path to rebirth.

Maybe we don’t really understand the problem.

New York City and Chicago, like most major cities, see significant out-migration of their existing residents each year. What is atypical is that Cleveland does not enjoy the energy of new people moving in.

Put simply, the city needs the fresh optimism and pluck of new immigrants, the most likely source of New Clevelanders.

New immigrants are inherently mobile,and can move to Cleveland as part of secondary migration from New York City or other gateway cities. Many would be excited to pursue their American Dream right here on the shores of Lake Erie. In part due to the presence of immigrant language cable television and the internet, they can come to Cleveland and still retain ties to their native culture. Immigrants are moving to far more isolated places, such as Fargo, North Dakota.

The great shame is that this was once proud city of immigrants (nearly 1/3 foreign-born in the early 20th century). But it now only 5% of its population is foreign-born, well-below the national average of 12%.

But none of this impresses Mayor Frank Jackson who summarily dismisses immigrant-attraction initiatives like those in Philadelphia and those being discussed now in Detroit. Yet the basic reality is that immigration provides the only way for cities like Cleveland to generate the kind of numbers needed to make up for decades of mass out-migration.

In numerous cities around the country, economic development professionals and foundations are looking at ways to tap the immigrant market. This will not only counter local depopulation and stabilize local the housing market, but will also attract a new wave of urban entrepreneurs, investors and consumers.

They also realize that a globally diverse city would act as a magnet for the young, international and minority professionals leading the New Economy. These people could help catalyze a transformation to a more entrepreneurial, globally-connected and innovation-based local economy.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced his plans to recruit 75,000 newcomers within five years to fill the city’s abandoned homes. And he’s targeting immigrant newcomers who have recently arrived in New York City.

In Detroit, the New Economy Initiative (a $100 million regional fund for economic development), the Skillman Foundation, and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce are conducting a community-wide discussion about ways to rebuild the city by attracting immigrants and international resources and promoting new intercultural partnerships for the benefit of all its citizens.

Other cities consider immigrant-attraction strategies, but Cleveland City Hall ignores the very people most likely to move to Cleveland: immigrants looking to own their first homes and to start their new businesses.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group conducted a study on Northeast Ohio’s economy and concluded that that the region is likely to suffer even after the rest of the country recovers from the recession. PNC’s Senior Economist and author of The Econosphere, Craig Thomas, found that attracting immigrants would help the region’s economy through investments in housing stock and start-ups.

“As people leave, it really does take international folks to come in, open up stores and fill up neighborhoods,” Mr. Thomas told Crain’s Cleveland Business.

But Mayor Jackson insists that efforts like those in Philadelphia and supported by economists like Mr. Thomas are not for Cleveland. As he began his second term, he said that he is positioning the City to compete in the global economy by building from within by using what he calls “self-help.”

But not many are left to help. And by the time the policy is seen as a failure, even more will be gone.

As people leave, so do businesses, from neighborhoods and many parts of downtown where vacancy rates have skyrocketed.

As Cleveland’s downward spiral continues, the local leadership appears clueless on how to stop it.

Richard Herman is the co-author of Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker) (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Herman is the founder of an immigration and business law firm in Cleveland, Ohio, which serves a global clientele in over 10 languages. He is the co-founder of a chapter of TiE, a global network of entrepreneurs started in 1992 in Silicon Valley by immigrants from India. For more information on immigrant entrepreneurship and rust belt revival, see www.ImmigrantInc.com ; www.youtube.com/user/Immigrantinc2010 ; www.ohio.tie.org. Contact Richard at richard.t.herman@gmail.com or 216-696-6170.

This article originally appeared at New Geography.

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Brookings’ New Geography of Urban America

The Brookings Institution just released a gigantic report called “The State of Metropolitan America.” This is a hugely ambitious and important study. Brookings examined changes in the characteristics of the top 100 metro areas in the United States from 2000-2008 across a wide range of domains with all sorts of interesting findings. The report is so overwhelming that I don’t think anyone can claim to have fully digested it yet. So my own comments should be seen as preliminary. Congrats to Brookings for this undertaking.

Increasing Urban Diversity

Among Brookings key findings is something I’ve been stressing for some time, namely how different metro areas are. This diversity only seems to be increasing over times. As they put it:

In some ways, large metropolitan areas actually became more different from each other in the 2000s.

The 100 largest metro areas span a wide range of social, demographic, and economic experience. Across the nine subject areas of this report, enormous differences separate the metropolitan areas with the highest and lowest rankings in 2008.

We’ll come back to the policy implications of this.

New Urban Typologies

Among the big splash items in the report – and clearly one Brookings is stressing – is their new typology of American metros. Before I describe that, it’s worth backing up to see the way cities were often grouped together in the past, namely regionally. Brookings did a report back in 2006 called “The Vital Center” which talked about the critical importance of the Great Lakes region. Here’s a graphic showing that study’s geographic construct:

It’s a clearly regional construct. It’s also obvious it is that this report was written by someone from Michigan.

Here’s how Brookings looks at cities today. Pay particular attention the classifications of cities in the Great Lakes area.

Note the many variations of urban areas within the Great Lakes. Before discussing the Brookings typology in detail, it’s worth looking at what they said about this particular matter:

The notion of a unified ‘Rust Belt’ stretching across large portions of the Northeast and Midwest overlooks the important factors that distinguish populations in Rochester, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago from one another.

Amen. Brookings is silent on what this report means for their previous construct, but it is notable that they used the term “Rust Belt” not “Great Lakes”. This particular excerpt makes it sound like they have decided to go in a very different direction.

Brookings characterizes metros into seven types based on three characteristics: population growth, educational attainment, and diversity. Their list is:

  • Next Frontier – Scoring high on all three categories, these are the ones Brookings say are the most demographically advantaged. It includes places like Seattle, Denver, and the Texas Triangle, and are mostly in the West.
  • New Heartland – Similar to Next Frontier but less diverse, including Portland, Columbus, and Charlotte.
  • Diverse Giant – Slow growing, but educated and diverse regions, mostly made up of America’s Tier One cities like New York and Chicago.
  • Border Growth – Areas mostly along the Mexican border with strong growth from immigrants, but low educational attainment
  • Mid-Sized Magnets – Similar to border growth, but apparently growing from domestic migration, since they are less diverse.
  • Skilled Anchor – Cities like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh that are educated, but growing slowly and without much diversity.
  • Industrial Core – Classic Rust Belt type cities ranging from Cleveland to Birmingham with low growth, low educational attainment, and low diversity.

Like all classification schemes, this one has its questionable cases, but I think it broadly captures some important differences between cities. It also makes the very important point that cities ought to be viewed by their attributes as much as by their location. Birmingham and Memphis may be in the South, but they are every bit as much Rust Belt cities as their Midwest brethren.

Now as it turns out, most of these classifications are geographically clustered. Only Diverse Giant and New Heartland are really a national phenomenon. Still, the Midwest area does have a diversity of places.

I was particularly struck by how Brookings Midwest classifications matched almost exactly my classification from a year ago into Global Cities, Successful Cities, Stable Cities, and Struggling Cities. Here’s the cross mapping:

City Brookings Urbanophile
Chicago Diverse Giant Global City
Des Moines New Heartland Successful
Indianapolis New Heartland Successful
Madison New Heartland Successful
Columbus New Heartland Successful
Kansas City New Heartland Successful
Minneapolis-St. Paul New Heartland Successful
Cincinnati Skilled Anchor Stable
Grand Rapids Industrial Core Stable
St. Louis Skilled Anchor Stable
Milwaukee Skilled Anchor Stable
Akron Skilled Anchor Struggling
Detroit Industrial Core Struggling
Dayton Industrial Core Struggling
Toledo Industrial Core Struggling
Cleveland Industrial Core Struggling
Youngstown Industrial Core Struggling

As you can see, we only disagree on two cities. And if I must say so myself, I think my classification is more accurate for those two. Unlike Brookings, I used a single variable – population growth – with thresholds for bucketing. But I did cheat by putting Chicago in its own category arbitrarily. So Brookings has me there. Chicago’s population growth would have put it as “Stable” in my schema.

The only difference between Skilled Anchor and Diverse Giant is diversity. But I don’t think that’s what really separates a Chicago or New York from St. Louis or Milwaukee. The real difference is their economic structure. The Diverse Giant group is actually mostly so-called “global cities.” They’ve got a skilled core of very high value services that is going well surrounded by a large zone that is at best hanging in there. Other than perhaps in Miami, the diversity angle seems to be a legacy of their status as port of entry more than anything. If we looked at this economically, you’d probably boot Honolulu (an outlier in any US scheme), and add Boston. But of course, as I said, any classification done by metrics generates border cases.

Local Policy Implications

Let’s turn to the policy implications of this, first on the local side. Does this mean that the idea of traditional regional policy is dead? Jim Russell seems to think so. I’m not so sure.

I think there’s a difference between typologies of cities and how you integrate economically. Places in the New Heartland class, for example, might have much to learn from each other, might benchmark against each other, etc., but it doesn’t necessarily go beyond that. And while cities in a region may be very different, that doesn’t mean they can’t collaborate or economically integrate. Indeed, being different helps there through better enabling specialization.

I’m basically skeptical of the mega-regional concept, but can appreciate the virtues of both approaches. For example, Longworth’s pan-Midwest cooperation approach could be very useful in areas like creating a high speed rail network or promoting better collaboration between Big Ten universities. And it seems reasonable that regional relationships with Chicago would make a lot of sense. But Russell is right that so long as the world sees the Midwest region as a region, as the “Rust Belt”, it cripples these places. The world needs to understand that Columbus isn’t Toledo. Right now only Chicago, because of its longstanding huge size and history as having an independent standing in the world, can punch through the scarlet letter that is the Rust Belt label. Columbus can’t do that easily. In a sense, to start recovering, we have to blow up the idea – externally at least – that everyplace in the Midwest shares the same meta-narrative. We also have to recognize, as Russell stresses, that economic networks are now global in nature, and there are all sorts of diverse circuits in which cities can participate.

Federal Policy Implications

As a DC think tank, Brookings obviously stresses federal policy. In this case, they promote a bifurcated view: a federal policy that deals with common themes and issue, and state and local policy that deals with the different and granular issues.

National policy makers have the unique obligation to address aspects of the five new realities that affect all metropolitan areas, or are simply beyond metropolitan area’s own capacity to tackle. As this report demonstrates, however, different challenges assume varying levels of prominence in different types of metropolitan areas. Leaders at the state, regional, and local levels must now more than ever understand and respond purposefully to the demographic, social, and economic changes most affecting their places.
….
National policy will be necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing the wide range of challenges facing metropolitan areas. Indeed, the increasingly distinct profiles of major metro areas along the key dimensions outlined in this report demand that their own agendas – at the state, regional, and local levels – confront the issues most pressing to their own futures.

The Brookings five new realities are Growth and Outward Expansion, Population Diversification, Aging of the Population, Uneven Higher Educational Attainment, and Income Polarization.

I recently wrote a piece on a federal policy for cities in which I said that federal policy itself must address the increasingly unique needs of metros. I’m not sure that we can just keep the common elements at the national level punt the distinct items to the state and local level. Generally I’m a fan of devolution. However, in this case what we are really talking about is devolving de facto to the states. And as we’ve seen repeatedly, state governments are to varying degrees implicitly or explicitly hostile to cities. There are almost no effective or empowered regional entities in America and municipalities are often hamstrung by state laws that limit their ability to deal with their own problems. In a choice between federal vs. state government, I’m usually a state and local kind of guy, but when it comes to metro policy, I’d probably have to say the feds are more likely to get it right, alas.

Beyond that, the new geography Brookings highlights goes a long way towards explaining why we’re gridlocked on so much policy at the national level and why we’ve got to grasp the nettle of urban/sub-national diversity at the federal level. The problem isn’t just one of partisan gridlock, it is that these different metros and their states really do live in different worlds and as a result have very different policy points of view. Back in the Eisenhower era, pretty much everybody – even big city mayors – wanted freeways. That created policy consensus. Today, there are not only philosophical disagreements, there are also legitimate differences of character and need between these metro areas. I don’t think we’ve fully grasped the implications of this. Along with things like income polarization, what’s happening is that the American commonwealth is tearing apart. Our fortunes are no longer as linked as they once were. A rising tide won’t necessarily lift all boats, and what’s good for thee is not necessarily good for me.

This only promises to get worse over time. One of the incredible stats in this report is that less than 25% of children under 18 in Los Angeles are white. In a generation or so Los Angeles will be a Latin American city in character. This will add an ethnic dimension to the problem. One doesn’t have to scream “racism” to see this. Just look at ultra-politically correct Europe, where national-ethnic undertones are a big part of the debate over the bailout of Greece. The US is becoming like the EU in a way few people talk about, in that it is culturally separating. That’s one reason a federal bailout of California is unlikely outside of some executive fiat. And it is only going to get worse.

I won’t pretend I’ve got the answers, but bigtime thinking needs to go into how we find a framework to deal with this increasing diversity – and I’m not just talking about ethnic diversity. That’s one of the keys to breaking the gridlock on things like transport policy. Yes there are partisan differences, but it is more than just that.

Perhaps some of the answers are buried in our antebellum history, when there was much more state and regional than national allegiance. I don’t know. Perhaps the dominance of slavery as an issue in that era makes it less useful. Or maybe we can learn from the EU itself, though that model has been heavily criticized as undemocratic and it isn’t working too well at present. In any case, I do believe we need a federal policy around cities that addresses areas where there is divergence, and I believe we’ve got to find policy frameworks to make it actionable.

Lest I overstate the case on Brookings policy split, I should note that they did also write, “National policy responses must recognize the diverse starting points of metropolitan areas and, where necessary, ensure that interventions are tailored to those differing on-the-ground realities.” I would love to see them do a lot more research and thinking along those lines.

Highlights of the Report

I would like to highlight a few of the interesting facts that come out of the report. Again, this doesn’t even scratch the surface.

I wrote previously about how immigrants are revitalizing inner suburban areas, even in the Heartland. This report provides more evidence of that. Indianapolis was the #6 city in the entire US for both increase in Hispanic population and increase in Asian population. Columbus was #9 on both metrics. Now that’s on a low base to be sure, but there are tons of other places with low bases that didn’t see this growth. Cleveland, for example, ranked 95 out of 100 in its change in percentage of foreign born population and the percentage of foreign born residents in the city itself actually went down. This also demonstrates that some heartland cities aren’t just seeing the nearly ubiquitous Mexican immigration, but immigration from many different places.

It gets even better. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis both increased their college degree attainment by a robust 5.3 percentage points. That made them the #3 and #4 metros in the entire country for growth in the degreed. Just for the record, that’s called “brain gain.”

Another interesting metric was the change in under 18 population. This to me is a huge measure of demographic health. Those children are your city’s future. If you don’t have them, you’re having a going out of business sale. Alas, many Rust Belt cities experienced large declines in children.

That’s serious. Some have claimed that the Pittsburgh demographics are skewed by a high elderly population. Perhaps that’s true, but the decline in children shows that Pittsburgh is far from demographically healthy. Again, there is quite the regional contrast. Some regional cities had the opposite situation. Indy’s child count grew by 12% compared with a national average of only 2.5%. Interestingly, Chicago became the only Midwest city to become “majority minority” in its population under age 18. Here’s a broader national view of the percentage of households who are families with children:

Reversing the Great Migration, blacks continued to move to the South. Atlanta added 445,578 blacks, reinforcing its position as the capital of black America. The next nearest competitors were Dallas and Houston who both added in the 100,000’s. That shows the overwhelming locational preference for Atlanta, which passed Chicago to have the nation’s second largest black population after New York City.

Lastly, Minneapolis-St. Paul was #7 in America in the worsening of income inequality. Holy Scandinavian scandal, Batman!

There are tons more interesting facts where these came from. You’d be well served to read the report for yourself, and look at the fact sheets on your city available for download from the Brookings website.

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Replay: Louisville – The Case for 8664

[ It's not every day you get to both save billions of dollars and make something better to boot, but there's a chance to do just that in Louisville, Kentucky with the 8864 project. Since the stakes are so high, this one is worth another reminder, with a small update to note Indiana's $1 billion shortfall in its Major Moves highway plan. A recent Brookings Institution study just classified Louisville as an "industrial core" city - the worst score you can get - because of its low educational attainment. 23 lanes of highway downtown won't attract anybody, but a city reconnected with its incredible riverfront might.

Tuesday is Louisville's mayoral primary. This is one of the issues that matter for the city's future. 8664 has published the results of a candidate questionnaire on their web site. Also note that 8664 co-founder Tyler Allen is running for mayor. If I still lived in Louisville, it would be a sure thing he'd have my vote! - Aaron. ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>

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

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

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

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

Got flyovers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This plan:

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

The choice is very clear. Does Louisville want this:

Or this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better and cheaper. What’s not to love?

Of course, not everybody likes better and cheaper. Highway construction and engineering companies sure don’t. And they carry a lot of political weight. But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was already wealthy before taking office, doesn’t need anyone’s money, and isn’t angling to do anything but serve out his last term as governor and continue pushing for change. He’s brought a keen fiscal eye to the Hoosier State, and 8664 would save Hoosiers a bundle by not having to pay for 50% of a downtown bridge plus 100% of the approach work on the Indiana side. His Major Moves highway program is $1 billion underfunded, not even counting this project. This is a great place to start looking for savings. And 8664 preserves the East End bridge that Indiana cares about and which is a no-brainer.

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally ran on June 28, 2009.

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