Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Failure to Communicate: Beyond Starbucks Urbanism

This post is not about policies per se, but about how they are marketed. Progressive urban policies such as improved transit, density, quality of space, excellence in design, and green friendliness often run into significant resistance in cities where there is not a long history of urbanism. This is because too often they are poorly positioned, packaged, and sold to the public. Advocates for these policies attempt to lift and drop a solution such as a Portland-style streetcar into a very different environment. Getting a transit line approved in Portland is like shooting a layup – degree of difficulty low. Getting one approved in the Heartland is a very different matter. Advocates have generally ignored the salient facts on the ground in their cities and failed to make a robust case for forward looking policies beyond a narrow base. Let’s look at some examples.

Cincinnati Streetcar

Cincinnati narrowly beat back a citizen-led ballot initiative to derail a streetcar system last fall, but it remains controversial and unfunded. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published a skeptical editorial and the project is far from guaranteed.

While proponents have upped their game a bit lately, they were doing a generally poor case of selling the streetcar to Cincinnati, using arguments that among other things made a case based on a narrow appeal to gentrification. Here’s a video the city released featuring the mayor and city manager discussing the streetcar (if the video doesn’t appear, click here):

At 1:00 into the video, here is how the mayor describes the economic development benefit of the streetcar:

If you make the investment of putting rails in the ground, and people know there’s going to be a train, we’re talking a about a modern train that comes every day, developers and investors now look at the streetcar line and say, “Well there’s a vacant building. I’m going to buy that building. I’m going to put a Starbucks in the first floor and I’m going to put condos above it.” [emphasis added]

Starbucks and condos. I wonder if the mayor has ever considered this key figure: the median household income in the city of Cincinnati is $33,524. Keep in mind, that’s household income, and by definition half of all households earn less than that amount. Think they care about whether Cincinnati has a few more Starbucks or condos? Or do they have other bread and butter concerns that might weigh more heavily?

Too many urban advocates have an impoverished vision of city life that amounts to little more than “Starbucks urbanism.” I believe we need reinvestment in our cities. I believe we need to attract “choice” consumers, people who have options about where to live. Focusing exclusively on helping the poor only ensures your city will stay poor as everybody else wises up that they are the chumps serving as the city’s ATM machine and head for the hills. But we’ve got to make sure projects are conceived and marketed in ways that appeal to the broader community, not in ways that might actually seem threatening to them. This example is particularly unfortunate since it wasn’t necessary. The mayor could easily have said put a “store” on the ground floor and “residences” or “apartments” above.

Imagine Kansas City

Here’s another example, this one from Kansas City. It’s a video that was run as part of a public television series on the future on Kansas City. I’ve actually highlighted this video several times as an example of good transit advocacy. One of the most important things you need to do in pushing for something new and different is to create a vision of how life in the city will be better and different when the plan is carried out. This video does a great job of that. (If it doesn’t display, click here).

Good as this video is, it has the major weakness that it too is selling transit as a generator of Starbucks urbanism. Did you notice the types of businesses? Coffee shops, fitness clubs, sushi bars in what appears to be an upscale neighborhood. Also, considering our obsessively politically correct climate (far too politically correct in my view), it is notable that the people in this video were almost entirely white and upscale.

Again, consider who this is being marketed to. In cities like Chicago or New York where working class and poor neighborhoods have reasonable quality transit and at least semi-walkable neighborhoods, selling them on investments in urbanism is generally not a challenge. Indeed, the usual debate is around them clamoring for more transit type investments and demanding equity in spending on them. But in places like Kansas City, where bus service for the poor has often lagged and the city isn’t nearly as walkable, marketing to yuppies misses the broader audience. Perhaps that’s why it was voted down last time.

It should come as no surprised that poor and minority communities who are stuck with pathetic bus systems that don’t meet their needs today are often skeptical of rail transit that appears to be for rich people. It isn’t just anti-tax people who often fight it. The NAACP in Cincinnati opposes the streetcar. And a organizations representing a majority black neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota are very skeptical of a light rail plan there, which they are afraid will only lead to displacement in their community. (Here’s a related article which shows that proponents didn’t do their homework).

The person who created this video – which again I think is among the best in many ways – made some changes for his next iteration for Indianapolis that created an even more effective story in my view by addressing some of these points.

What About Everybody Else?

My other favorite example besides transit and neighborhood redevelopment is talent attraction. It’s accepted by virtually everyone that having a critical mass of the right talent is key to success in the 21st century economy. Boosting college degree attainment is critical. But in most states the majority of adults don’t have college degrees. So why would they be interested in this? Trying to make the case for investments in luring the college degreed can seem like investing in people who are already privileged. People seldom explain why it is good for the average person in the community.

I addressed this matter in a recent blog post excerpting my keynote address at the IndyPartnership annual meeting, so I’ll include a clip here again:

There’s one other narrative that needs to be created. This one is for local consumption and it is one that almost every city overlooks. Since the benefits of attracting the college degreed are so high, cities tend to focus on that. But what about the people without degrees? Less than 20% of adults in Indiana have a college degree. What about the other 80%? What’s it in for them in these progressive urban policies? Many of them are hurting right now, and I think they have a right to be skeptical about policies that seem to be focused on the most privileged in society. So we have to show the benefit to them and answer the questions.

Why should we be investing millions of dollars in Conexus and Biocrossroads? Why does it matter that corporate executives can have a steak dinner and a good time downtown? Why should we be investing millions of dollars in pharmacy education at Butler and Purdue, to produce graduates who will earn six figures the minute they walk out the door? Well, if you are a single mother in Clinton County with a high school diploma who can get a good job as a technician at Medco [a mail order pharmacy company] it matters to you, that’s why.

That’s the type of story we need to be able to tell. To make it real to people why these forward looking policies are good for all Hoosiers. These stories have to be told, told loudly, and told often.

What stories are you telling about how investments in talent and the new economy boost everyone?

A Broader Urban Vision

When I was part of a panel at Rail~Volution with Ryan Avent, he made a really great observation that we used to have this notion in an era of urban abandonment that riding the bus, or other hallmarks of urban living, were a second class choice, something you did if you didn’t have better options. Now now we’ve gone to the other extreme where that’s considered the luxury option. But we forgot that there’s this entire spectrum in the middle where we can have more middle class oriented urbanism.

Designing for and marketing to people outside of the Starbucks urbanism crowd requires taking the time to understand their lives, aspirations, and point of view, and making sure you take their perspective seriously. Legendary leftist radical Saul Alinksy made this point clearly back in 1971:

To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.

Doing It Right: John Robert Smith and Reconnecting America

We have to go beyond Starbucks urbanism. We have to find a way to build broad coalitions for forward looking policies. We have to get serious and start marking the case in a better and much more effective way by making sure to reach out to the whole community.

To see one great example of how to get it right, watch the video below I shot with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, at Rail~Volution in Boston. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

(FYI: I’d like to stress that I shot that video myself with a Flip camera during a busy conference – it’s not an official video. A real marketing video would of course have real production behind it)

Smith is running an organization that is heavily pushing transit oriented development, but understands the importance of both bi-partisanship and building bridges to smaller towns and rural communities about creating a transportation bill that works for everybody. People should take lessons from this approach. John Robert Smith gets it.

The sales job on better urban policies has frankly been wanting. For those who don’t live in low degree of difficulty communities, it’s time to seriously raise the game on the marketing plan and execution.

I’ll have another installment in my “Failure to Communicate” series at a future date.

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: Cincinnati, Kansas City

32 Responses to “Failure to Communicate: Beyond Starbucks Urbanism”

  1. Everett says:

    The poor communities you mention that tend to feel excluded from development may actually have the upper hand in the situation of urban transit development. Sometimes, through pure ignorance, these groups may be excluded from the early planning processes solely because they travel in different social and political circles. Once those plans are shared with the public though, these excluded groups should be able to shame or guilt the planners into making some accommodations. News organizations would eat up a story with such a clear underdog. Since the stigma of steamrolling unrepresented groups is so strong, is it possible that these groups just need to play the underdog card with news outlets and not just in court?

  2. Quimbob says:

    I agree with what you are saying. Communication & outreach in Cincinnati on the streetcar issue has been bad to non-existent. Opponents are doing a lot better job. That being said, the video you liked, while the message might be good, was horribly produced. The message needs to be presented with some professionalism, too.

  3. Qiumbob, you can blame me for the video quality. I shot that with my Flip mino. Video skillz are something I don’t have. That’s my production quality, not theirs.

  4. I understand your point, but your evidence is not all that convincing. You have to ask yourself who these videos are reaching. I would imagine that most of the people watching YouTube and Vimeo videos are not poor households. Instead I would imagine that these videos are being viewed by primarily young and affluent demographics.

    Consequently, I would imagine the the messaging seen here is not necessarily the same type of messaging seen elsewhere (i.e. physical displays, lectures, etc). I don’t think it is wrong in and of itself to promote this kind of “Starbucks Urbanism” as you put it, but I do agree that there needs to be messaging that extends beyond this. In Cincinnati I know that this singular video is not representative of the entire streetcar promotional efforts, and I also know that while the NAACP may be opposed to the streetcar project, other organizations representing black and other minority populations are actually in favor of the project.

  5. With all that said above, the Cincinnati video you reference actually focuses on a much different message than the “Starbucks Urbanism” you cite. While the Mayor does make that statement, the video primarily focuses on what the benefits will ultimately be using real data/numbers.

    This includes the numbers for how much the Cincinnati Public School system benefit, how many housing units would be created, how many jobs would be created and how the project won’t raise taxes. The Mayor and City Manager (who both happen to be black), also cite how this will change the conversation about Cincinnati in a larger sense and how this will improve the overall quality of life of the city – for all residents.

    So yes, at the 1:00 mark the video does embody the “Starbucks Urbanism” concept for about 10 seconds, but then the rest of the video is very diverse in its messaging. And in my opinion, does not follow the “Starbucks Urbanism” messaging at all. Am I missing something else in the video outside of the brief Starbucks shout out?

  6. Randy, first I’d like to stress I don’t think this is a Cincinnati-specific problem. The mayor just gave me the money quote. It’s the same story everywhere.

    I don’t think the video was bad at communicating to the “young and affluent” demographic. I just believe that’s a narrow base in Cincinnati and most similar cities. If there is marketing specifically targeted at say working class whites without a college degree, I’d love to see it. But most of the marketing I saw was in this theme.

    If you do watch the video, you’ll see some of the same effects as the Kansas City one. Other than the mayor and city manager, look at the people who populate the video. Look who appears in front of the Starbucks when the streetcar whooses by. Look at the two guys playing checkers. Look at the two guys in suits and other people in the background in the next streetcar sweep through. Etc. The general tone (e.g., statements like “develop their careers” or “raises the position of Cincinnati in the national conversation”) is one that appeals to the upscale. Again, perhaps that’s the target of this video. But there are a lot more people than that in Cincinnati.

    Again, this isn’t Cincy specific – it’s the same story everywhere. It works where the demographics support it such as Portland and Seattle. It’s tougher elsewhere. We need to market better to the people in our cities. No, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to win over the tea party crowd or COAST. But there are plenty of other folks to be captured.

    Incidentally, there’s a meme I heard that the Cincy NAACP opposition was a personality thing with their president. But it’s the same story in Minnesota. And it was the same story with the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. It’s again a broader phenomenon.

  7. cdc guy says:

    From the perspective of the community development world, a national-brand tenant in a “comeback” neighborhood is important. A neighborhood is no longer “down” or even “on its way back” once it lands Starbucks and other recognizable national brands.

    In a re-developing area, those major-chain location decisions are almost fungible because they tend to draw others. In Indianapolis, look at the corner of 16th and Meridian: Chase and McDonalds have been joined by Walgreen’s and CVS to create a 4-corner retail/service node. The signal of investment and safety is seen by others; despite a number of vacant or under-occupied buildings nearby, there is considerable interest in further development. (Over a three-year period, the two drugstores replaced a fleabag hotel, a probation office, and a run-down IHOP that tended to reinforce negative aspects of the other two uses.)

    So I think “Starbucks” in redeveloping areas is sometimes a kind of shorthand for “reinvestment and safety” even though it can also be seen as a marker for gentrification.

  8. I agree that Mayor Mallory teed that one up for you, and others, but I do believe this video was meant to reach a certain demographic.

    With that said, I wonder if why we always tend to see white people drawn into renderings is because of stock files. I’m not able to say this with 100% certainty, but I do remember doing rendering work through college and often finding white stock graphics for 3d models or stills. Not sure why this is, or if there is any merit to it, but there might be something there.

    The one striking difference I noted about the Cincinnati Kansas City videos was the sense of reality each had. Kansas City’s was a beautifully produced video that focused on lifestyle changes, beautiful urban design images and an overall lofty sense of achievement for which planners are often criticized. Cincinnati’s video on the other hand showed real-world impacts, had real people talking about it, and highlighted real numbers that would impact everything from job creation to additional revenues for Cincinnati Public Schools.

  9. cdc, remember 38th and Meridian and College/Fall Creek?

    Randy, there may be something to what you say. Check out this link for a commentary along those lines in the responses to this Julian Dobson piece I dropped from the my article in the interest of space:

  10. cdc guy says:

    Aaron, I do remember. I think the 38th & Meridian failure has more to do with lack of drive-through facilities at a 60,000 car/day intersection, and its death won’t kill the corner. The next-door PNC bank and the nearby McDonald’s, BK, CVS, Rally’s, Chase and Walgreen’s all have drive-through service and appear to be busy.

    The College/Fall Creek failure definitely has to do with two widely publicized robberies. Apparently criminals assumed that “upscale” means “customers carry cash”. That store was a bit isolated; the only significant nearby commercial is a gas station/c-store. It was probably too early in that neighborhood’s redevelopment cycle (it was one of the Magic Johnson co-developed outlets).

    The Starbucks at 15th & Capitol, around the corner from 16th & Meridian, was opened after those other two, and is going strong.

  11. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, those are good points. I have often thought that today’s urban planners and leaders sometimes fall into the same trap we fell into in the Urban Renewal days. They are taking upper-middle class values and projecting them on the working-class and lower class residents of the city. In the 50’s that meant building International Style public housing. Today it means attracting the “Creative Class”.

    Some of the Creative Class concepts are good ones; i.e. if you have a big university in your community, it’s a great economic growth engine. However, I have gotten the sense that many of the Creative Class arguments are as much a justification for yuppie lifestyles as it is a true strategy for generating new life for cities. We should try to attract yuppies to cities, but we can’t forget to serve the other residents of our communities as well.

  12. Curt says:

    The only comment I will make is concerning the viewing audience. Indy has done a good job at getting the Indyconnect video on the local, PUBLIC airwaves. Ive seen the commercial numerous times now mixed in with the news, also late at night. Maybe some of those people dont have internet at home, but they go to the library and use it, so eventually, it reaches all demographics of the population.

  13. One other relevant point, I think is the influence of developers, especially where transit-oriented development is concerned. While I’m not categorically opposed to TOD–in a region which is growing, it can be a useful tool to help ensure that new residents don’t result in new sprawl–there can be some insidious effects.

    One problem with TOD is that in places where transit dollars can be hard to come by–and this includes Portland–TOD is used to help finance the construction and operation of a line. This gives developers a lot more say in the scope of the project than they might have otherwise; in the worst cases, transit projects are built that mainly serve new development, not existing neighborhoods.

    And guess what sort of developments developers prefer to build? Likewise, many government agencies, especially at the local level, aren’t really willing to subsidize lower-cost housing. This isn’t surprising, given that most local jurisdictions collect revenue from property taxes (and thus have an incentive to prefer high-value properties), and likewise would prefer to avoid the social pathologies (and drain on public resources) which frequently accompany poverty.

    While lots of people point to the Pearl District as a successful TOD (it is successful; certainly; how much the Streetcar has to do with its success is an interesting question)–but numerous attempts to recreate that success elsewhere in the Portland metro area have been far less successful. In quite a few cases, developers have attempted to build mini-Pearl Districts out in the suburbs along MAX or WES (in one case, in the middle of a neighborhood which has lots of blight nearby); and quite a few of these projects have been spectacular failures. Yet the ideal of building nice working-class housing along the transit line seems not to occur to anyone–probably because there isn’t any money in it, either for the developers, or for the government agencies in question.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    CDC Guy: the average resident of any neighborhood that’s middle-class or poorer doesn’t give a damn whether it’s on the national map. On the contrary, he’s going to be worried that the arrival of upscale national chains will raise rents.

  15. Gentrification is, of course, a problem–and the issue of whether attempts to improve neighborhoods are good or bad. Certainly, it can be argued that it’s bad when improvements result in the neighbors the improvements were designed to help being forced to leave.

    Which suggests an interesting topic for another thread: Are value-based property-taxes a good idea, or not? When municipalities try to avoid (or even seek to drive out) the poor out of fear of a diminished tax base, and residents resist improvements out of fear of an increasing tax bill, clearly something is wrong. OTOH, all of the commonly deployed alternatives in the US have their own disadvantages–income/payroll and consumption taxes are less stable; the former is intrusive, and the latter, if relied on too much, can result in black markets arising. A VAT, maybe…

  16. Matt Petryni says:

    Yeah, I’m with George and Engineer Scotty on this one, largely.

    What I see as a problem that isn’t identified here is that we haven’t learned from our mistake on urban renewal: that you can’t transplant an urban environment or planning regime onto a piece of land which lacks the infrastructure – cultural, economic, or literal – to support it.

    Where I see this go awry is when the attempt is made to turn Cincinnati into Portland or Kansas City into Portland or even parts of Portland into other parts of Portland. The Pearl District is a success not because we laid down rails and threw up a Starbucks: it’s a success because the City, Metro and others invested public money heavily in an area that just so happened to have all the ingredients for a dynamic city environment: small blocks and thus interconnectivity of transportation; aged buildings, and thus a diversity of architectures and rent schemes; and the geographic concentration, and thus density.

    The only ingredient that was missing – which the planners in Portland were smart to add – was mixed primary uses. The streetcar may have helped, but it was of nowhere near the determining factor of the Pearl’s success (or of Alberta’s success, or Northwest’s success, or Ladd Addition’s success). The determining factor was the other four things.

    Thus, totally ignorant of these critical ingredients, we see efforts to transplant this relatively organic emergence of urban vibrancy onto any place where it might hopefully fit: the notion that because the Pearl had a Starbucks with loft condos above it and a streetcar stop next door, anywhere we throw down a Starbucks with loft condos above it and a streetcar stop next door will suddenly spring forth into urban vitality and prosper.

    But a Starbucks with condos above it won’t make sense in every place, with every city’s demographics, as the Urbanophile rightly points out.

    Portlanders like Starbucks-equivalents because they’re cozy places to read/listen to jazz/beat poetry while it’s raining outside and a constant intake of caffeine is really the only way to deter constant hibernation in a place where the sun is seen a mere three months out of the year. As both Seattle and Portland are Pacific port cities, coffee became a logical source of this climate-mandated stimulant, as it was relatively cheap in a place where ships from Java, Peru and Sumatra docked (this isn’t to say no one else consumes coffee, by no means, just that the ‘coffee culture’ emerged from the climate and the economics). And, finally, loft condos were necessitated by the industrial history of the Pearl’s building, where conversion into mixed primary uses involved the adaptation of industrial spaces into residential ones.

    It is, then, an organic extension of a culture and economic environment that predated it. A culture where it makes some sense to listen to beat/hipster poets in cozy indoor spaces, drink abundant amounts of coffee, and live in loft condos. This is simply not the case everywhere; nor should it be. Put simply, it does not rain all the time everywhere.

    What is the case everywhere are the other four non-Starbucks ingredients of urban vitality: small blocks, concentration, aged buildings and mixed primary uses. Look for those, and you’ll find your urban success. That is, without trying to assume that every place could be a suitable facsimile of the Pacific Northwest.

  17. Ari says:

    A quick comment on the Rondo neighborhood (“proponents didn’t do their homework”). The interstate clearance in the 1950s tore out a full block of middle class, mostly African American housing, and many African-American-owned businesses as well. The current proposal involves exactly zero property takings, and on either side of University Avenue there are hundreds of acres of surface parking, and not a few abandoned car dealerships. There is some worry of gentrification (although there prime, vacant real estate on the line itself) but the big issue is a loss of parking, as no one believes frequent, (relatively, compared to the current stop-every-block bus) fast light rail will get people out of their cars. It’s a sad commentary on how car-centric the Twin Cities are, despite their recent biking prowess. Luckily, this project is unlikely to be held up by these detractors, especially since every-half-mile stops were recently added in the neighborhood, providing better access.

  18. Matt;

    One other ingredient in the Pearl’s success–and one which is certainly NOT replicable in other parts of town–is its proximity to the city’s premier shopping districts (NW 23rd, Galleria/Pioneer, etc); its proximity to much of the city’s cultural and nightlife, and its proximity to the major downtown employment centers. Transit helps here, and there are probably quite a few people in the Pearl who are willing to ride the rails but turn up their nose at the bus. (How much transit planners should accomodate the too-good-for-the-bus crowd is an another interesting question–the whole bus-v-rail thing is probably a distraction in this thread).

    Many cultural and civic institutions within a city serve the city as a whole, and can’t be franchised out to neighborhoods like a McDonalds or a Starbucks (the latter chain doesn’t use a franchise model, I know…) Proximity to such places frequently increases the value of a property.

    And besides. Many Portlanders regard Starbucks as shit anyways, and avoid it like the plague. :)

  19. Matt Petryni says:

    Ari; I’m with you. But I would suggest one thing about this: “the big issue is a loss of parking, as no one believes frequent, (relatively, compared to the current stop-every-block bus) fast light rail will get people out of their cars.” Light rail likely won’t get people out of their cars. The loss of parking, however…

    Scotty; yeah, I’d agree with most of that too. Proximity to me means the same thing as “mixed primary uses” (or, put another way, I guess “mixed use” means more, to me, than mixing residential and commercial, it also means proximity to other uses like schools/universities, parks, museums, courthouses, industries, meditation, train stations, etc). I guess I need to correct myself to add that even many of the “mixed primary uses” were pre-existing as well. But we’re mostly in agreement there so I won’t belabor it.

    And I’d even exaggerate to argue that *most* Portlanders regard the ol’ Starbuck’s as shit – coffee’s over-roasted, for one, but more importantly, the place lacks the character provided by live events and such, which Starbucks rarely, if ever, accommodates. I’ve never really been sure why. It’s a huge part of most coffeehouses’ business model. ANYWAYS…

  20. cdc guy says:

    Matt: your closing comment about “mixed primary uses” points out another weakness of current urban thought. Pursuit of “mixed use buildings” seems to be another one of those urban-planning dogmas right now.

    The reality is that a block or neighborhood needs “mixed primary uses”, not every building. Strict zoning segregation of uses probably went too far in the last 50 years of the 20th Century, but it arose from some basis in reality: many people don’t want to live on busy arterials or near very intense or noxious uses even if they want to live in a more-urban neighborhood.

    But the current fad of favoring (and almost romanticizing) mixed uses in every building, especially in redeveloping areas in downtowns and near-downtowns, is probably overdone.

    Alon, I didn’t say “national map” and didn’t mean that. I meant local perception of an area.

    You might be surprised what people want and think, especially about national brands. In the low-to-moderate income city neighborhoods where I work and live, people want stores and services that they perceive are available to everyone else.

    People say this is partly to make their neighborhoods look more alive and active (replacing older, dead commercial spaces), partly because there are so few goods and services available (sometimes attributed to discrimination against poor or minority people), and not least, because retail and service jobs become jobs for local low-to-moderate income residents.

  21. Patrick says:

    Aaron, another issue that nobody has brought up yet is that in many metropolitan areas, the boards that support and fund urban rail transit are often the MPOs- usually composed of one large central city Mayors and numerous small town/satellite community leaders. While a weighted vote system makes the central city powerful when push comes to shove, there are often more suburban than urban values at the decisionmaking table.

    When it comes around to investing in transit at a high level, what type of use do those MPO policymakers want out of the system? They want a “neat, clean,” mall-predictability level urban experience once a month on a weekend with their kids/grandkids to attend big city museums, cultural, or sporting events.

    They don’t take their family members to blue-collar urban corner stores with some groceries and utility retail. Once this type of board is in charge, you almost inevitably start on the path towards the high-quality Kansas City Starbucks urbanism video.

    Look at how numerous BART extensions keep running ever farther out in the Bay Area while MUNI and other more central transit agencies cannot advance their top projects as a prime example. When your policy guidance board requires considerable appeals to suburban sensibility, the view of the daily city user is usually deprecated in part or in whole to the suburban park-and-ride special event city user in order to build the consensus to move projects forward. This dynamic informs the marketing materials greatly.

  22. Curt says:

    I believe this has been one of the best post and comment sections I have read anywhere in a long time. I commend everyone for keeping an even keel. It has been nice to see people with vested interest in their cities (Portland, Indy, Minny) come to the table in this thread. :)

  23. Matt Petryni says:

    CDC: You’re most certainly right. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that a building itself must always be “mixed use” to contribute to urban vibrancy. I thought this, perhaps, was clear when I indicated that proximity to cultural and civic institutions, to me, was as an important a component to “mixed primary uses” as is putting residential and commercial in the same building, if not more so.

    I think where we might agree is that there’s a significant danger in the fact that “mixed use buildings” has become a new planning dogma like “single use buildings” was before it, and that too makes little sense. In a lot of cases, mixed use buildings are one effective way to provide a mix of primary uses – but in many cases, they will not be. Nor should we expect a neighborhood of commercial/residential on the caliber of “Starbucks condos” to provide adequate “mixed primary uses” to insure vibrancy. I see a lot of cities getting frustrated that they’ve added a train and mixed-use buildings but find that urban vibrancy remains elusive. In the meantime, blocks remain large and nothing in the neighborhood is more than 10 years old…

    I guess I think the latter is the bigger danger; but the former is of consequence as well.

    Anyway, all that being said, I think single-use zoning emerged out of the externalities of the industrial city. And it worked: suburban neighborhoods are mostly free of the overcrowding and pollution that afflicted the early industrial city. They’re also, in large part, free of the vibrancy that inspired cities in the first place. And further, it actually increased pollution overall by necessitating more transportation between products and markets, and markets and consumers.

    A better idea might have been for polluters of the industrial city to have had to factor the full costs of their production into the price of their products – and thus, be incentivized to reduce the pollution that was externalized onto central cities and elsewhere. And despite single-use zoning, this externality problem persists unabated.

    Now, we’d like to get some urban vibrancy back, but somehow leave industry out of the picture. This is sort of similar to the problem Patrick alludes to: “urbanism sans diversity,” or “sanitized urbanism.” Even here, in Portland, the Port and the Bureau of Environmental Services were called out by a Planning Commissioner at a meeting when he noticed them at war over how to protect fragile ecosystems, created urban vibrancy, AND have land for the employment centers afforded by industrial operations. To date, the approach is to push the industry out to the hinterlands – sort of a Garden City ethic – where it need not been seen, smelt, or heard. This, of course, shoves it off onto ecologically sensitive lands, and the Sierra Club – who has significant sway over policymakers in Oregon – comes knocking.

    The weirder part, which no one has really talked about, is that many of the most vibrant and storied Portland districts – say, the Pearl, or the Alphabet District – still have a close proximity to industry. The Pearl is still, though maybe not nearly as much as it was in its past, a functioning industrial district. There are ball-bearing dealers still supplying manufacturers from locations next door to trendy coffee shops, and auto salvagers operate in buildings right alongside interior designers. Even the lauded “microbrewpub” is a classic example of a mixed commercial/industrial use (I think the Deschutes brewpub shares a corner with one of the aforementioned ball-bearing dealers).

    So, anyway, when I see this manifestation of “mixed-use” that means “Starbucks over condos, maybe with a train that comes every day,” I can’t help but cringe a little bit: no monocultures are ever very resilient in nature.

  24. Matt Petryni says:

    Patrick: Yeah, most of the time, it just feels like Mall 2.0, which, while better than Mall 1.0, is still not going to get it done in terms of either vibrancy or sustainability. See my post immediately above for more detail, you’re definitely right on the mark here.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    CDC: even local perception doesn’t matter too much to most people. See for example the anti-gentrification growing pains in Harlem, where the local perception that it’s no longer a ghetto has caused rents to skyrocket.

    And while poor people like to shop at national brand-name stores, they may not like to have those stores in their neighborhoods. Urban community leaders are usually against such chains as Wal-Mart and Target opening local branches, on the grounds that they’d displace small business and only provide low-income jobs.

  26. Regine says:

    Anon, the primary reason for the skyrocketing rents in Harlem was not due “. . . local perception that it’s no longer a ghetto” but to the steep rise of rents in the more “desirable” areas of the City. Those people who moved to Harlem were young, looking for “Sex in the City” or “Friends” lifestyles, and most importantly new to the City. They were priced out of Tribeca, the Village, Downtown, etc. so they moved uptown and to Brooklyn.

    The City/State also invested billions into building new affordable housing like the projects on Madison Ave in East Harlem. Another factor was the dearth of available land except along the rivers for new development and the loss of Mitchell Lama subsidies as well as the many years of work by several Harlem CDC’s to redevelop 116th and 125th Streets.

    Poor people are just like their more affluent counterparts. Have you been in the Target on Atlantic Ave in Bk?

  27. cdc guy says:

    “And while poor people like to shop at national brand-name stores, they may not like to have those stores in their neighborhoods. Urban community leaders are usually against such chains as Wal-Mart and Target opening local branches, on the grounds that they’d displace small business and only provide low-income jobs.”

    I’m not talking about Wally World and Tar-jay as brand-name stores. I’m talking about smaller footprints like the drugstores (CVS and Walgreen’s) and especially Foot Locker, Urban Outfitters, Apple, Sprint/Verizon/AT&T, etc. “B” tenants in suburban strip malls, in other words.

    I agree with Regine’s arguments (slightly modified): where there is high demand for housing in “upscale districts”, people begin to nibble at the fringes. Ultimately, the perception of formerly-bad neighborhoods evolves from “fringe” to “okay” then “mainstream”. It’s Economics 101 (high demand chasing limited supply), not reverse racism or gentrification.

    Matt, sorry to come off as if I were disagreeing with you. I took your comments to mean exactly what you said in your clarification, and tried to run with it. “Mixed use buildings” HAS become new planning dogma.

    And I agree on the concept of externalities, and on maintaining areas for commerce and industry within cities. I frequently argue for “industrial/commercial reuses” of shut-down industrial sites on local Indy discussion boards. For instance, a major Navistar factory and foundry in my neighborhood is closing this year, and I jokingly threatened anyone who suggested turning it into greenspace or an arts venue…Starbucks Urbanism or extreme “garden city” planning in my book.

    The site is adjacent to a CSX railyard and two major arterials that lead to the Interstate. It is a perfect place for an intermodal facility: substitute clean(er) commerce (and some truck traffic) for a dirty old industrial facility, and keep some semi-skilled and management jobs in the area.

  28. Wad says:

    If it’s not too late to chime in on the “Starbucks urbanism” problem, here’s my interpretation.

    It’s mighty cynical, but it’s an interpretation nonetheless.

    People are generally captive to their demographic profiles.

    If the transit videos are showing “Starbucks urbanism”, its more of a reflection on the video producer than it is of the content of the video.

    I can guess, with about 90% certainty, that it’s produced by a white person who has a high degree of education and/or high income.

    The content itself lends it to be classified as targeting a similar demographic cohort because Starbucks urbanism is generally a sweeple-centric cultural reference point.

    Starbucks urbanism is the only shared culture among the messenger and its audience. It’s safe, understood and needs little to no explanation.

    There’s also the sentiment that if Starbucks urbanism doesn’t exist, it needs to be created from scratch.

    What idealists don’t count on, though, is how much cultural resistance their vision inspires.

    And, as Aaron mentions in the post about “the racquet,” the vision creates a unifying force for disparate demographics to rally against.

    The Starbucks urbanism video will detract as much as inspire. Detractors would include: low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities who see any attempt at civic improvement as a movement to uproot them from their neighborhoods; anti-tax groups who dogmatically believe only private, for-profit economic transactions are legitimate; and in most communities it would reveal racial fissures in the community.

    For every one Starbucks urbanism video view, there is exponentially more who think the reality will be more like transit’s equivalent of the Willie Horton ad: the infamous “MARTA girl” video. That has become the cultural reference point for transit-hostile and transit-skeptic communities.

    I don’t know of any effective means of getting everyone to re-examine and free themselves of cultural blinders, but I think any plan should include amounts of idealism and reality seasoned to tastes of the community.

    We now have enough mass transit investment and results to make real-world inferences than by promising a Starbucks with high-end condos on top.

    You don’t need to out-New York, New York in order to have a successful system.

    Here’s another success story in a place where you would least expect a transit success story: Phoenix.

    Granted, Arizona is a sprawling mess that loved sprawl so much it built its entire economy around it.

    In terms of public transit, though, it has a terrific story and one that most cities should look to as an example.

    Phoenix built a light rail line in 2008 that had loud, visible opponents but lukewarm-at-best supporters. The conventional wisdom has it that Phoenix has so many destinations with no discernible center that it would be futile for transit to serve them all.

    (For those who say that light rail goes nowhere, an independent citizen put together Rail Life, a guide to destinations big and small on light rail, including housing listings for people who wish to live near the line as well. This is one of the finest examples of an open-source transit website out there.)

    Valley Metro realized that no light rail line could ever serve everyone, but if it had to build it, it might as well go to the places that matter most.

    It’s a 20-mile line carrying about 30,000 — but in Phoenix, that is a huge deal. Phoenix probably went through the fastest “For Real” period in modern transit history. It got to “For Real” (as in, answering the “will people ride it?” question to the point where its place in the urban landscape is no longer in doubt and it is “For Real”) within the span of a weekend.

    Before light rail, there was a bus line that mimicked the train’s current route. It was Valley Metro’s busiest line, but it carried somewhere around 10,000 a day. Plus, there wasn’t enough bus service cut to get that remaining 20,000 on the train. The biggest improvement came in travel time: the light rail line takes 70 minutes to go from Central Phoenix to West Mesa. The predecessor bus took 2.5 hours — one way.

    That may sound like a slam-dunk case to build light rail, but that’s not the entire story. Phoenix spent a decade building up its bus system before light rail. It was only in 2000 when Phoenix added Sunday bus service! It raised taxes to bring most bus lines to run at least every 30 minutes and past sundown to about 10 p.m.

    That’s the less glamorous aspect, but the success of light rail wouldn’t have happened without priming buses first.

  29. Alon Levy says:

    Harlem hasn’t had that much influx. The media harps on it a lot, leading to the perception that it’s a gentrified neighborhood, but in reality the neighborhood is something like 6% non-Hispanic white, and at least in 2000 had a median household income of about $19,000. There aren’t all that many yuppies in the neighborhood.

    It’s not really a reverse racism issue – though it’s partly there, too. It’s an issue of perceived future worth. Chinatown is undergoing the same process: while the neighborhood is really poor, and is expanding due to an influx of poor Chinese immigrants, rents have risen due to speculation. The future expectation of gentrification has been priced in.

    I’m not exactly sure why you guys keep bringing up the fact that poor people shop at Target when what I’m saying is that community organizations oppose brand-name stores for political reasons. Yes, CVS and Walgreens count as brand-name stores – they’re national chains rather than local businesses.

  30. Regine says:

    The Atlantic Avenue Target is a good example of a retail center that caters to both lower & higher income customers.

    There is and always has been a large population of “yuppies” in Harlem who happened to be African-American aka buppies (think Sugar Hill). In fact Harlem’s evolution mimics to what happened in Ft Greene/Clinton Hill sections of BK, the presence of buppies sent a strong signal to younger white adults these neighborhoods were safe, cool and hip.

    Wad is correct when he says “Starbucks urbanism is the only shared culture among the messenger and its audience. It’s safe, understood and needs little to no explanation.” I commented on this fact on a previous post about the St. Louis renderings that showed one black person. It’s a subliminal message that is easily understood by all.

  31. Matt Petryni says:


    I apologize as well for the misunderstanding. I just sought to clarify; I was pretty sure we were on the same page.


    I don’t know. I think there certainly is a racial element (the ImagineKC video makes that obvious) but the stronger element is likely to be a class element. The cities portrayed – as Wad points out – are fairly homogenous with respect to class. Ironically, vibrant urban districts should not be. Other commenters on this board, myself included, suggested this class/race homogeneity is problematic because it’s (a) not realistic and (b) because no monoculture is sustainable or resilient. Cities without diversity might as well not be cities at all.

    Nonetheless, I share yours and Wad’s concerns. I often fear much of the “New Urbanism” is heavily sanitized and watered down, and thus lacking the diversity so critical to city life. I can’t tell which direction this is going, though: whether New Urbanism and its resulting “gentrification” is an intentional attempt to rid the city of “those people” by subconsciously or blatantly racist elites; or if the New Urbanists know that suburbanites won’t swallow the urban pill unless it conjures vision consistent with their racism. Or if both. Or if that’s how it’s been adopted in mainstream marketing.

    It’s just hard to tell which factor is weighing more heavily, and when, I guess.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Matt, I lived in the Adams Morgan section of DC when I was in college. It was a fantastic – very diverse in age, ethnicity, income, and class. I don’t know how much it’s changed but I still have my memories!

    Sometimes, I think it’s hard for people to separate class from race.

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