Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Bad US Rail Practices and What It Means for FRA Regulations by Alon Levy

[ Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has been doing a great job at documenting all the practices and regulations here in the US that put us at a huge disadvantage in having an effective transit system, even without our lack of commitment and funding. Here are further examples from him. I definitely recommend giving this blog a read – Aaron. ]

As I alluded to in the last few posts, although the FRA is the primary obstacle to a passenger rail revival, the old railroader traditions it reinforces are still strong in the commuter railroads. At some, for example the MBTA and the New York-area railroads, practices are even worse in terms of cost and performance than required by the FRA.

Witness the following issues, recurring on almost all US commuter lines:

1. Overstaffing, more than required by the FRA. The MBTA currently has one assistant conductor per two cars, and its proposal for an upgrade to newer rolling stock retains one conductor per two cars. The New York- and Chicago-area commuter trains have 3-6 conductors, punching everyone’s tickets. Caltrain maintains assistant conductors even though it does not punch tickets anymore. And New York’s plan with smartcards is not to institute proof-of-payment, as is normal throughout Europe, but rather to have conductors check every ticket using a smartcard reader, only faster: Jay Walder said as much at the MTA Unconference (it starts at 7:50 into the linked video, and goes into the next part).

2. Poor choice of rolling stock. See the same link above for the MBTA’s present acceleration profile, which is similar to that of the other commuter rail operators in the US using diesel locomotives. During acceleration from 0 to 60 mph, a train loses 70 seconds relative to going the same distance at full speed, and even under the DMU plan, it would lose 43. In contrast, a FLIRT loses about 13 seconds accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h. Despite this, there are no plans to electrify or ask for an FRA waiver.

Electrification alone could solve some problems, even without a waiver. The EMUs used by Metro-North lose 13-15 minutes from 12 intermediate stops on the Harlem Line, which after factoring in 30 seconds of dwell time works out to 35-45 seconds per station counting both acceleration and deceleration. Alternatively, if electrification is out, then an FRA waiver would open the doors to fast-accelerating as well as more fuel-efficient DMUs.

3. Poor use of existing infrastructure, especially at terminals. Even with FRA regulations, commuter trains with push-pull or multiple-unit service turn in about 5 minutes at their outer ends. They dwell for much longer at the downtown terminal, creating the illusion of capacity issues. To solve those capacity problems, railroads propose massive concrete, with no attempt to improve electronics or organization: the ARC cavern, the expensive ESA cavern, track expansion at Boston South.

4. A concrete-before-all-else strategy of investment, in direct opposition with organization before electronics before concrete. Amtrak and the commuter railroads that claim to be at capacity never investigated the possibility of better signaling, such as ERTMS. In addition, Amtrak’s Master Plan proposes extra trackage to avoid capacity problems in Massachusetts and Maryland that could be resolved with timed overtakes. Although organization is not sexy, it’s trivial for the various railroads using a station to share ticket vending machines and concourses, instead of separating into agency turfs; in addition, electronics is capital investment, and can get federal investment as well as good headlines about squeezing more capacity out of infrastructure. There’s no excuse for prioritizing concrete.

5. Poor integration with local transit in terms of fares and schedules. Commuter train stations are usually glorified parking lots; for one especially egregious example, compare Westborough’s train station location with its downtown location. Transit-oriented development is minimal. Best industry practice is to do the opposite, and instead integrate commuter rail with connecting buses at the suburban end, to say nothing of urban rail at the city end. Clipper in the Bay Area and the MTA’s proposals in the New York area have a single card that can be used to pay on both commuter rail and urban transit, but people will still have to purchase tickets separately, being punished first by the inherent inconvenience of transferring and then by being made to pay an extra fare.

6. Indifference to off-peak and reverse-peak riders. Peak ridership can fill trains, but is expensive to provide, because providing for more of it requires additional capital spending as well as additional employees working split shifts. Among the older railroads, the LIRR deserves singular scorn for running trains one-way on its two-track Main Line; although peak traffic on the three lines using the two-track segment is 23 tph, within the capabilities of two tracks under present signaling, the LIRR prefers being able to run express trains than any reverse peak trains. Outside the inner ends of a few very busy lines, such as the New Haven Line, off-peak service is at best hourly, and sometimes much worse. And at the peak, the commuter railroads eviscerate local service on their busiest lines in order to provide trains that make a few local stops and then express to the city, ensuring nobody will be able to use them to get to suburban job centers on the way.

7. Poor timetable adherence. Metro-North and Metra do somewhat better than the rest, but Amtrak only achieves 80% on-time performance even when it owns the tracks, and that’s after counting Northeast Corridor trains that are 20 minutes late as being on time. In contrast, SBB achieves 92% on-time performance by a 3-minute standard.

The importance of all this is that reform has to come from above, directed from Congress or the White House, or else from below by reform-minded railroads asking for many waivers and creating a template for smaller railroads to follow. Bruce McFarling has written various comments saying the FRA’s problem is one of regulatory capture by the freight railroads, and therefore the solution is to spend money on inferior passenger rail until there’s enough of a lobby for passenger rail-friendlier rules. This is unlikely; passenger rail advocates rarely care, with some positive but small exceptions such as NJ-ARP, and the passenger rail operators depicted in this post are wedded to the old way of doing things.

FRA reform by itself could help some of this, by creating a template for modern operations, consisting of a clockface schedules, short turnaround times, modern rolling stock, and regionally integrated fares and schedules. However, absent it, some forward-thinking railroad has to be the first to propose modernization. The MTA is ideally suited for it because of its high commuter rail ridership, but has no interest. As a result, good transit advocated need to keep harping on commuter operators as well as Amtrak to improve and reform, or propose reforms themselves. Hoping the status quo reforms itself will not cut it.

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on June 21, 2011.

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Thanksgiving Day Open Thread: What Are You Thankful For About Your City?

As those of us in the US head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to leave this open thread for anyone to post what they are thankful for about their city.

For Chicago, I’m thankful for the positive changes that have been coming to the city in Rahm’s administration. I was no Daley hater, nor do I agree with everything Rahm’s done, but clearly there has been progress on a number of fronts: 8,000 new jobs downtown announced, bringing in Gabe Klein to run CDOT, putting together a budget that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, etc. We’ll see how things develop from here, esp. as Chicago is a city and region with massive problems, but so far so good.

See you next week.

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Replay: Is It Game Over for Atlanta?

[ I wrote this before the 2010 Census results came out that showed Atlanta to have had the most over-estimated population of any large city in America. The Census Bureau had projected huge central city growth there, but in the results came in flat instead, falling a full 123,000 below what was expected. I have elected not to update the piece to reflect these numbers, but keep them very much in mind. The story in Atlanta seems to be even worse than I’d previously considered – Aaron. ]

Atlanta is arguably the greatest American urban growth story of the 20th century. In 1950, it was a sleepy state capital in a region of about a million people, not much different from Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Today, it’s a teeming region of 5.5 million, the ninth largest in America, home to the world’s busiest airport, a major subway system and numerous corporations. Critically, it’s also become the country’s premier African-American hub at a time of black empowerment.

Though famous for its sprawl, Atlanta has also quietly become one of America’s top urban success stories. The city of Atlanta has added nearly 120,000 new residents since 2000, a population increase of 28 percent representing fully 10 percent of the region’s growth during that period. None of America’s traditional premier urban centers can make that claim. As a Chicago city-dweller who did multiple consulting stints in Atlanta, I can tell you the city is much better than its reputation in urbanists’ circles suggests. I loved working there and I could happily live there.

Yet the Great Recession has exposed some troubling cracks in the foundations of Atlanta’s success. Perhaps it’s too early to declare “game over” for Atlanta, but converging trends point to a possible plateauing of Atlanta’s remarkable rise, and the end of its great growth phase.

Atlanta grew strongly in the 2000s, with growth of over 1.2 million people, a 29 percent rise that beat peer cities like Dallas and Houston. But look at the recent past and see a very different dynamic. Domestic in-migration has cratered, only reaching 17,479 last year, or 0.32 percent. While migration did slow nationally last year due to the economy, Dallas and Houston continued to power ahead. Dallas added 45,241 people (0.72 percent) and Houston added 49,662 (0.87 percent). Even Indianapolis added 7,034, but that’s 0.42 percent on a smaller base, meaning Atlanta is actually getting beat on net migration by a Midwest city.

With growth faltering, Atlanta’s jobs engine is also sputtering. With over one million new people, Atlanta added almost no jobs in the last decade. From 2001-08, its GDP per capita actually declined by 6 percent. And over that same period its per capita income declined from 109 percent of the U.S. average to 95 percent, a stunning 14-point drop that was the worst of any large city.

Atlanta also has a myriad of infrastructure problems. It suffers some of the highest water and sewer rates in the nation, double those of New York City. As former Councilwoman Clair Muller put it, “I’m not sure being No. 1 in the country for water and sewer rates is a good selling feature.” It also faces a shutoff of water from Lake Lanier — a political issue, but one that highlights that Atlanta has done little to expand water resources in the last 50 years.

The biggest infrastructure issue for Atlanta is transportation. Atlanta’s freeways are among the world’s widest, but this disguises the extent to which its roadway infrastructure is woefully insufficient. Atlanta has a simple beltway and spoke system similar to Indianapolis and Columbus, much smaller cities. Other big cities like Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Detroit have much more elaborate systems that don’t rely on a single ring road, but instead webs of freeway with multiple “crosstown” routes.

But Atlanta’s greatest road problem lies in the lack of arterial street capacity. Atlanta’s suburban arterial network is mostly former winding country roads, many of which have never been upgraded to handle current demands. Most upgraded streets are radial routes, not crosstown ones, which forces even more traffic onto the overloaded freeway network.

For those who prefer transit, Atlanta hasn’t invested there either. It built the MARTA heavy-rail system as an extremely forward-looking transportation investment, mostly in the 1970s and early ’80s. This was built before Portland’s system and is far better than light rail to boot. But there has been almost no expansion of the network. The state of public transport has been largely frozen for some time. Meanwhile, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and others have invested billions.

Bad traffic congestion and other infrastructure ills didn’t matter much when Atlanta was the only game in town. For a long time, anyone who needed a presence in the Southeast found Atlanta the easy or even only answer.

But no more. Atlanta is now surrounded by upstart, faster-growing cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, Nashville and Charleston, S.C. — all in many ways with ambitions once characteristic of Atlanta.

Atlanta’s problem lies in its insufficient differentiation from these other places. Other than the airport, a clear major asset to Atlanta, how much do you actually lose by moving to Charlotte or Nashville? Your commute will even improve. These other cities also now have the talent to compete for a lot of the business Atlanta used to pick up without working for it.

Charlotte chamber of commerce chief Bob Morgan said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” That’s the way Atlanta used to talk.

Atlanta does seem to realize it’s in a different competitive world. Like Chicago and other growth stories before it, as Atlanta got big and rich, it decided it needed to get classier as well. To go for quality, not just quantity. And to embrace a more urban future for its core.

But it might be too little, too late. Atlanta is urbanizing, but despite the huge influx of people into the city, it’s not there yet. Atlantic Station got built and attracted lots of press, but numerous other mixed-use projects were killed by the poor economy. Ambitious projects like the Beltline park and transit loop lack funding.

Atlanta is left in a sort of “quarter way house,” caught between its traditional sprawling self and a more upscale urban metropolis. It offers neither the low-traffic quality of life of its upstart competition nor the sophisticated urban living of a Chicago or Boston.

Cities, like companies and people, go through a life cycle. There’s the youthful founding, the explosive growth phase, then maturity and, for some, decline. Atlanta has been one of the boomtowns of the current age. Like other cities before it, that growth will come to an end one day. It is then that we’ll see if, like Chicago and New York, Atlanta will succeed as a mature region and truly claim a place in the pantheon of great American cities, or instead decline or stagnate like so many others did.

Atlanta is far from dead, but it may be facing the beginning of the end of its growth cycle. What will Atlanta be when it grows up? The answer will be the true measure of its greatness as a city.

This column originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 26, 2010 and is adapted from a post that originally appeared in New Geography.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Jan Gehl on Cities

Jan Gehl is best known as the godfather of Copenhagen’s bicycle network. But he’s much more than that. He’s an expert in human-city interaction, and an exceptionally witty and articulate defender of designing cities first and foremost for people. If you ever have the chance to see him in person, don’t pass it up.

The video below is highly recommended for anyone thinking about how to design cities and revive their urban core. Even though it’s 30 minutes, it is well worthwhile. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). h/t Economics of Place.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Tory Gattis on Social Systems Architecture and Why It Matters

Tory Gattis is an ex-McKinsey consultant and Houston civic advocate who writes the blog Houston Strategies. As you might infer, he’s heavily aligned with the Houston model of civic development. I know that’s something that isn’t very popular in some circles, but it seems to be working for them at least.

Tory recently spoke at TEDxHouston on a variety of topics related to urban development and Houston. The video is below, followed by some commentary. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Here are a few of the takeaways in case you aren’t up for watching the video.

1. Size Matters. City size is important. City-regions benefit hugely from scale economics. For example, a football stadium costs the same if you have a few people to pay for it or a lot of people to pay for it. People are also more productive and make more money in bigger cities. Gattis cites a variety of statistics on this, which should be familiar to anyone who has been reading about the research of Geoffrey West.

2. Income/Cost. The importance of cost adjusted personal income. Looking only at income provides an incomplete view since regions vary widely in costs, particularly housing cost. Per Gattis, Houston metro ranks #1 in the country in personal income adjusted for cost of living.

3. Business Climate Houston has no zoning and is just generally a pro-business environment, making it an attractive place for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike.

4. Mobility. Personal mobility, especially highways, is critical to expanding the “opportunity zone.” In fact, Gattis claims good auto mobility reduces sprawl. Houston is approaching the limit on freeway expansion, however, and transit options are needed. But given the highly dispersed nature of the region’s origins and destinations, bus would be far preferable to rail.

5. Organization. This is a bit of a non-sequitor in the the video, but the limits of hierarchy in the modern age is very apropos of urban redevelopment. Many cities seek redevelopment via a strong “top down” model. That’s still the best way to get things like stadiums and transit systems done. Unfortunately, things like reviving the urban core require an equally vibrant bottom up culture.

I don’t expect this video to convince many folks, but it is always good to hear divergent points of view.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Summit for NYC Videos Now Posted + Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

The Metropolitan Art Society has posted its collection of online videos from the sessions of the Summit for New York City last month. There were some great talks by a variety of people on any number of topics, but all around the general theme of “livability.”

Below I’m embedding the video of my session, which also included Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation; Lynn Osmond, President of the Chicago Architecture Foundation; Peter Bishop, former Planning Director of Design for London (the mayor’s design office); and Brent Brown, an architect and founder of bcWORKSHOP in Dallas. Everybody had great things to say, but this was a long session, so if you are interested only in Yours Truly, you can skip to 46:00. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

Thanks to all of you who came out the Lathrop Homes redevelopment kickoff last night. It was a great turnout.

I talked a bit about this project with a representative from the CHA on Chicago Public Radio yesterday. The audio of that segment is below for your listening pleasure. For anyone in a reader or email, it likely won’t display, so click here to listen. There’s a brief news summary at the beginning that lasts about two minutes.

Comments Off on Summit for NYC Videos Now Posted + Lathrop Homes Radio Segment
Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Chicago, New York

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

New York: The State of the MTA’s Mega-Projects by Carson Qing

[ New York has a number of ambitious major transit expansion projects underway. While these aren’t perfect projects, feature grossly inflated price tags, and are being financed with bonding that has put the MTA in a tough spot, they are critical investments for a city that is at an all time high in population, near an all time high in employment, and in which the transit system is groaning under the load. I’m happy to be able to present this construction update courtesy of the NYU Rudin Center. If you like this you may be interested in checking out their blog – Aaron. ]

On October 25, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction, provided an update at the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU Wagner on the statuses of the MTA’s four ongoing transit “mega-projects,” each of which are scheduled for completion within the next five years. These projects will each have an enormous economic impact on both New York City and the surrounding region, by shortening commutes, relieving traffic congestion and overcrowding in existing transit lines and hubs, improving transit connections, facilitating accessibility to job locations in Manhattan, and supporting transit-oriented development projects.

The New York City economy is far more dependent on its transit systems than any other urban economy in the country: half of Manhattan commutes are taken by subway and almost three-fourths of such commutes are taken by transit. More than 5 million riders take the MTA subway on a daily basis, which is more than the populations of Chicago and Houston combined, and approximately 560,000 riders take the MTA suburban rail lines each day. Modern, efficient, and reliable rail systems will be key to the continued economic competitiveness of New York City in the 21st century, and the MTA’s investment in the following ambitious infrastructure improvements illustrates their unwavering commitment to the city and the region’s future.

Fulton Street Transit Center

The planned Fulton Street Transit Center will serve as a major transportation node in Lower Manhattan, with connections to the 11 MTA subway lines and 6 stations, New Jersey-bound PATH trains, and the new World Trade Center site.

The plan calls for construction of a modern transit facility with improved street-level access at Fulton Street and Broadway, and an underground pedestrian concourse (the Dey Street Passageway) linking the redeveloped World Trade Center site and PATH transit hub with the E and R trains and the Fulton St. hub. This will facilitate transfers and connections between subway lines, provide more access points to the Lexington Avenue 4 and 5 trains, and integrate the Corbin Building next door as a neighboring retail hub. The $1.4 billion project is expected to be completed in 2014, and should play a key role in maintaining the economic vitality of Lower Manhattan with the improvements in access to and from the World Trade Center site and the Financial District.

Second Avenue Subway

According to Dr. Horodniceanu, the crowded 4-5-6 subway lines along Lexington Avenue on the East Side of Manhattan have more daily passengers than the entire CTA subway system of Chicago, with an estimated 1.3 million daily riders. A subway line along the Second Avenue corridor has been discussed for decades as a means to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines during rush hour commutes.

These plans have become reality, as the MTA broke ground in April 2007 for a new “T-train” extending from Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem, and the extension of the Q-train from 57th Street to 125th Street. Construction of the Second Avenue Subway will proceed in four phases, with the first phase consisting of the extension of the Q-train from its present terminus at the 57th Street-7th Avenue station northward to the new 96th Street-2nd Avenue station. New, state-of-the-art subway stations at 63rd, 72nd, 86th, and 96th will be constructed during this phase, and are scheduled for completion in 2016. By then, the $4.4 billion project is expected to have a significant impact on reducing crowds on the 4-5-6 trains (projected 13% decrease) and travel times for those living in the Upper East Side.

7-Train Subway Extension

Like the Second Avenue project, the extension of the 7-Train to Manhattan’s West Side will provide subway access to a part of Manhattan that has long been in need of it. The extension is designed to serve the transit needs of the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, which will feature a mixed-use, medium-to-high density development extending from 42nd to 30th Street along Manhattan’s West Side and the expansion of the Javits Convention Center. As Dr. Horodniceanu noted, the extension of the 7-Train from Times Square to its new station at 34th Street-11th Avenue in the heart of the site will make the Hudson Yards a “transit-oriented development,” which will be crucial to its future success.

The 1.5-mile extension was originally proposed for the purposes of New York City’s 2012 Olympics bid and the construction of a West Side football stadium for the New York Jets at the Hudson Yards site; while both the Olympics bid and the Jets stadium proposal fell through, plans for the 7-train extension remained intact, and the $2.1 billion project is expected to be completed by 2013.

East Side Access

One of the largest mass transit infrastructure projects in the nation, the East Side Access project will have the greatest regional impact among all four of MTA’s ongoing “mega-projects,” as it will connect the Main and Port Washington lines of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Grand Central Terminal, which currently only serves MetroNorth commuters from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. Currently, the Park Avenue corridor near Grand Central has emerged as a major hub of corporate headquarters and high-paying jobs, as many financial services and corporate management jobs have moved there from Lower Manhattan in recent decades.

The East Side Access project will enable the 157,000 Long Island residents currently working in Manhattan to take the nation’s busiest commuter rail directly to Grand Central Terminal, potentially reducing commutes by 40 minutes. This would be a significant asset for suburbs in Nassau County such as Great Neck on the Port Washington line, where currently more than 20% of residents commute by rail to work, one of the highest rates of any municipality in the nation. Shorter and more attractive transit commutes can not only increase property prices in suburban Long Island, but also provide additional opportunities for transit-oriented development (T.O.D) near key nodes. The project would also relieve congestion at New York Penn Station, thus reducing delays for Manhattan commuters from New Jersey.

The project will consist of the excavation of tunnels in Manhattan and Queens and the construction of an underground passenger concourse at Grand Central Terminal with eight train tracks, four platforms, and mezzanines and concourses. Overall, the East Side Access is the MTA’s most ambitious mega-project with a cost of $7.3 billion, and is slated for completion in 2016.

This post originally appeared in the NYU Rudin Center blog on November 7, 2011.

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Chicago: Lathrop Homes Redevelopment Public Kickoff

Children at Lathrop Homes

Cities are about people, not just buildings. So you can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.

Northside Chicago residents will get a chance to see if they measure up to the progressivist urban ideals they espouse as one of the last and perhaps one of the most important of the public housing project redevelopments in the CHA’s Plan for Transformation gets underway soon at the Julia C. Lathrop Homes on the north side.

This is perhaps a bit more of a neighborhood project than I’d normally write about. But this is my neighborhood, and the people who live in Lathrop are my neighbors. And I believe the particulars of this project make it important to the city and, if done right, potentially an example for the nation.

The Lathrop redevelopment project has been controversial for some time, but I won’t rehash that history here. Instead, I’ll just say that the CHA selected a consortium called Lathrop Community Partners last fall to lead the development of a master plan for redevelopment

The team has been conducting preliminary interviews, and the official public process is about to begin with a public meeting on Wednesday, November 16th at 6:00pm at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen Ave. at Wellington, across the street from Hamlin Park. Anyone is welcome to attend. Please spread the word especially to those you might know who live in the neighborhood. You can find out more about what’s going on at the Lathrop Community Partners website.

What Are the Lathrop Homes?

The Julia C. Lathrop Homes is a public housing project at the intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourn with 900 units, though only about 200 of them are currently occupied. But it’s a housing project unlike any other in the city. When you think public housing in Chicago, you think of the post-War urban renewal high rises like Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes.

Buildings at Lathrop Homes

But Lathrop is completely different. It’s a low rise development constructed under the auspices of the New Deal’s WPA in 1937. The construction quality and architecture are of a much higher order than anything constructed post-War. Frankly, the exterior looks better than some new condo buildings. The WPA built a number of these around the country and they form a unique and historic collection of developments. Alas, not all have survived, and ensuring that Lathrop doesn’t share the same fate as the likes of the partially demolished Lockfield Gardens in Indianapolis is one of the issues at stake in the matter.

Lathrop Homes, aerial view of site

Lathrop is also different in that it was for quite some time an all-white project. Today Lathrop Homes is extremely diverse, including white, black, and Latino residents, making this perhaps the only project in Chicago with a trans-racial history and present. Megan Cottrell wrote about this history in more detail, and actually went on a tour with some former residents from the old days of Lathrop, who decided to knock on the door of the unit they used to live in. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Problems, or Lack Thereof, With Lathrop

Given the vastly different history of Lathrop from other CHA developments, it’s unsurprising that it had a different trajectory. While not immune from problems, Lathrop has not become the byword for dysfunction and criminality that the high rises did. Everybody knew the Cabrini Green had to go. It would simply never have been possible to make that project function. But Lathrop is different. It made me nervous to drive through Cabrini in broad daylight, but I’d walk around Lathrop at night even before it was depopulated by the CHA. The types of crime you’d hear associated with Lathrop is more on the order of tagging than hard core gangbanging.

Most importantly, there doesn’t appear to be any real community opposition to Lathrop or public housing generally in the neighborhood. I know people who’ve owned upscale condos near there and never once have I heard a complaint about Lathrop.

In short, while there are problems I’ll address in a moment, unlike with other CHA projects, there’s no burning platform for scraping Lathrop and starting over, nor for any displacement of existing residents. Quite the opposite in fact. There are many reasons to want to both preserve Lathrop architecturally and as a significant source of public housing units in the area.

So what are the problems.

Firstly, the buildings are old and in need of repair. Also, while Lathrop was one of the better projects, we know that warehousing exclusively poor people in a high density setting isn’t a very good idea. And Lathrop has traditionally been in an isolated spot along the Chicago River in an industrial corridor without good connections to the surrounding areas, a problem that persists today. It’s difficult to even say what neighborhood it is officially in. The project is split across two city wards, for example.

Intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourne

Beyond Lathrop itself, the Clyborn corridor is an unmitigated disaster, save possibly from a purely commercial perspective. It’s generally low grade strip malls of the early Schaumburgian variety, giving it a grade of F- on sustainability and basic urbanity. Obviously better advantage needs to be taken of the Chicago River. The area is a huge barrier to east-west bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The six way intersection at Diversey/Damen/Clybourn is one of the most pathetic in the city. It is under-served by transit. Only a fool waits for the #50-Damen anymore without checking bus tracker first. This area doesn’t even function well for the yuppie condo owners who don’t live in Lathrop. And yikes, how many different kinds of street lights can you spot in that one photo? That alone shows the extent to which this area has been an afterthought by the city.

The Lathrop Opportunity

The unique history, condition, and setting of Lathrop provides what I believe is a unique opportunity for Chicago to do something truly special. If there’s community and city leadership will to make it happen, we could stack up a truly staggering list of wins here:

  • Nearly zero displacement of residents. Supposedly 400 units of traditional public housing are penciled in for Lathrop, and the city has guaranteed a unit to anyone who is a current or recent resident dating back to 1999 who meets some qualifications. The devil will be in the details here for sure, particularly on matters like “lease compliance” requirements. Certainly no one should be compelled to stay nor be blamed if they take the money and run, but unlike with previous CHA redevelopments, there’s simply no excuse not to make sure the vast bulk of residents end up back in the new Lathrop. In fact, given Lathrop’s depopulated state, there should actually be a net increase in public housing residents when the project is completed.
  • Creating a true mixed income, diverse, cohesive neighborhood in a city that desperately needs it. It’s no secret that Chicago is heavily segregated and balkanized. The pure gentrification wave that was sweeping through the area crashed with the housing market, leaving the Hamlin Park area bordering Lathrop as an interesting pocket of diversity, with an eclectic mix of pretty much at least one of everybody. It reminds me a bit of my old neighborhood in South Evanston – and in a good way. Because of the diverse surroundings and general lack of suspicion of Lathrop by non-residents, I believe there’s an opportunity to achieve something very special here. It won’t be easy, and the process will be as important to achieving it as the master plan itself, but the potential is there.
  • Preservation of the historic buildings. Again, this is a much higher grade of architecture than typical public housing, and these buildings are historic. Wholesale demolitions are not warranted here.
  • Leading edge sustainability. In addition to energy efficiency upgrades and such in the buildings, this ought to be Chicago’s first actual LEED-ND development actually built. There’s no reason not to do this, and again the neighborhood desperately needs improvement in this arena.
  • Reconnecting with the Chicago River. Helping to build another major link in reclaiming that waterway for people.
  • Enhancing the boulevard system. Another unique aspect of this project is that it is on the Chicago Boulevard system. Both Logan Blvd and Diversey are technically part of that, though neither seems it. The difference between Logan east and west of the Kennedy is profound. The entries in the NETWORK RESET competition to re-envision the boulevards have to contain good ideas that could be adopted into the Lathrop plan. This redevelopment could also be the first phase in the next generation boulevard treatment.
  • Improving multi-modal access and connectivity. Damen Ave. is already a major north-south bike route, but is still less than bike friendly in my view. East-west connectivity from Logan Square and beyond into the lakefront and adjacent neighborhoods is poor. I noted the extremely pedestrian-hostile six way intersection and less than idea transit service in the area. All of these need addressed. This is of particular importance for the Lathrop residents who are isolated by the poor design features of the area, as well as the commercial district that does not well serve the needs of anyone without a car.
  • Starting the healing process of the Clybourn corridor. There’s no reason more neighborhood serving retail and other institutions can’t be included in the mix.

I don’t see any of these as mutually exclusive. Funding may be challenging for some of the capital elements, but this is a multi-year process and there’s no reason everything has to have money in the bank on day zero.

It won’t be easy, but if Chicago can pull this off, it would not only be the best outcome for the neighbors, Lathrop residents and non, but would create an national showpiece and demonstration of what a mixed income area could be and how to provide affordable and public housing in a way that’s great for everyone involved.

How You Can Help

I’d encourage everyone, especially those who live in the area, to attend this meeting or otherwise get involved and be a strong advocate for the right outcome.

I believe strong, collaborative, and positive neighborhood involvement is critical to getting the right project here. I think city leadership through the aldermen in the area legitimately wants a good outcome. So I don’t believe it would be productive to assume “the fix is in” or the other various conspiracy theories people often love to tout when it comes to local government. I personally don’t believe that to be the case, though obviously different parties have different perspectives on what should be done.

On the other hand, like Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” I’ve got concerns myself. For example, that the CHA will impose templated elements, particularly around housing mix, based on the rest of the transformation program in a place that is very different from other CHA properties and in an environment where market conditions have changed radically. Everything I have heard to date suggests that the CHA plans to shoot for their typical 1/3 public housing, 1/3 affordable housing, and 1/3 market rate housing mix. But with 46% of all Chicago mortgages underwater, we need more “market rate” condos like a hole in the head. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a significantly increased public housing component here.

Also, the CHA has already deferred this kickoff meeting for six months. They basically forced everyone who lived north of Diversey to move south of it. And they planned to seal off the north part of Lathrop with a huge 8-foot perimeter wall built right to the sidewalk. Not neighborhood friendly to say the least. So there are reasons to be concerned about what’s going on.

That’s why I plan to be involved, to make sure there are strong voices advocating for the right outcome for our neighborhood. I hope you will be too.

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Back to the City

Update: The NYT just ran an interesting story called “In Shift, More People Move In to New York Than Out” that provides further info on this trend using recent Census data.

My latest post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Back to the City?” and examines the question of whether in fact there has been a movement back to the city. Census figures suggest that while many downtowns flourished, albeit often showing large percentage gains on a small base, cities generally underperformed in the 2000s vs. the 1990s.

In this piece I look at intra-metro migration to measure people moving from the city to the suburbs and vice versa. Because data is only available at the county level, I selected four cities where counties offered a good proxy for the urban core: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

As you can see from the chart above, there has been a shift in trends in the 2000s, with out-migration falling off late in the decade, while in-migration remained steady or even increased. The most striking trend was in Philadelphia, as shown above. That chart shows the migration values plotted as a index to render them in the same scale. There is still a net out-migration to the suburbs, but the gap has narrowed in these places. Here we see that on the chart with raw numbers:

Obviously with the late decade featuring a steep recession and housing bust, migration has been affected. It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. But these numbers do clearly show improvements for core cities in the underlying migration trends.

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Live State Policy Difference Experiment in Progress

About a year ago I wrote a post called “Does Policy Matter?” examining whether or not state policy really makes that much difference in how various regional economies perform. It seems pretty obvious that states can really screw things up, but can they make it better?

With the voters repealing legislation that would have put limits on public sector unions in Ohio, we now have a situation where five core Great Lakes states, states which face broadly similar challenges and opportunities, have now staked out some very interesting contrasts in how they want to do business. It will be interesting to see how they fare. The contestants, with their strategies, are:

1. Indiana. We’ll be the South-lite. Think K-Mart, not Wal-Mart. Bare bones and proud of it, though unlike Texas and Tennessee we don’t have right to work but we do have a state income tax.

2. Illinois. We’re as screwed up as California and New York, but we think we’re just as rich and important as California and New York, so we don’t really care.

3. Wisconsin. Why don’t we see what happens when you take a chain saw to a blue state?

4. Michigan. We’ve got the worst business reputation in the country and have been in recession for over a decade. But let’s not go too crazy changing.

5. Ohio. Union and proud of it. Big blue all the way baby, and let’s super-size those pensions while were at it.

May the best state win.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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

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