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Sunday, September 14th, 2014

The New Donut

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut used to like to say that “you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” This is the oft-repeated notion has been a rallying cry for investments to revitalize downtowns in America for three decades or so now. The idea being that you can’t have a smoking hole in your region where your downtown is supposed to be. This created a mental based on a donut. You can’t let downtown become an empty hole. For reason that will become apparent soon, I call this model “the old donut”:

Filling in the hole became every city’s mission. Pretty much any city or metro region of any size has pumped literally billions of dollars into its downtown in an attempt to revitalize them. This took many forms ranging from stadiums to convention centers to hotels to parking garages to streetcars to museums and more. It’s popular today to subsidize mixed use development with a heavy residential component.

These efforts have paid off to a certain degree. Most big city downtowns have done very well as entertainment and visitor districts, eds and meds centers, etc. More recently we’ve seen an influx of residents, even in places where the overall city or even region has struggled or declined. Cleveland added about 4,000 net new downtown residents in the 2000s. St. Louis added 3,000. With most cities in some stage of an apartment building spree consisting of a few thousand units, these numbers should only improve.

Key weaknesses remain in private sector employment (declining in most places) and retail (not enough high income residents yet). And other than the tier one types of cities like Chicago, few places seem to have reached a sustainable market rate development level yet – pretty much everything is getting public assistance. Yet its pretty evident that most larger downtowns have made huge strides and are experiencing overall reasonable health.

In short, the donut hole has been filled in. Where does that leave us? I’d argue with a paradigm I call “the new donut”:

In this model, the old donut is inverted. What used to be the ring of health – the outer areas of the city and the inner suburban regions – are now struggling. Whereas the downtown is in pretty good shape, and the newer suburban areas are booming. (You might add in a fourth outer ring with troubles – these were the exurbs where very low-end housing proliferated because development standards were very low).

You see this in the population figures. Wendell Cox cranked the numbers and found that major metro areas gained 206,000 residents in the two mile radius from the center, but lost 272,000 residents from the 2-5 mile ring. Growth picked up strongly beyond that arc. This is the new donut area, though the start and end of it vary by metro and some have thicker rings of challenge than others.

We’ve got three decades of experience in downtown revitalization, but much less in dealing with this newer challenge zone. I’ve said that suburban revitalization may prove to be the big 21st century “urban” challenge. This is where it is happening in many cases. These areas have an inferior housing stock (often small post-war worker cottages or ranches), sometimes poor basic infrastructure, and are sometimes independent municipalities that, like Ferguson, MO, are often overlooked unless something really bad happens. Unlike the major downtown, they are often “out of sight, out of mind” for most regional movers and shakers.

What’s more, while downtown provides a concentrated location for massive public investment, this more spread out area is too big to fix by throwing money at it. And how many stadiums and convention centers does a region need in any event?

This is where we need to be doing a lot of thinking about how to bring these places back, look at what’s being done, etc. And also, given the inequality in the country, to try to think about ideas that don’t involve gentrification. One project that appears to be in this kind of zone, for example, is Atlanta’s Beltline project, though there’s a gentrifying aspect to this one. Regions that figure this one out will be at a big advantage going forward.

Friday, September 12th, 2014

If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct

My latest column is out in the September 2014 edition of Governing Magazine. It’s called “If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct” and long time readers will find the themes consistent with what I’ve long argued. Here’s an excerpt:

Bike lanes are great. But bike lanes are the civic equivalent of what might be called “best practices” in the corporate world. They are things every well-functioning city is now expected to have. They don’t, however, generate differential value or make a city any more competitive in the market. Just as you can’t build a successful company on simply a collection of best practices, it’s hard to build a successful city just on these things. You need them, but they aren’t enough. They are the new urban ante — just table stakes.

If we think of the places that have the greatest resonance in the public mind, it’s generally those places that are unique. People visit New Orleans or Las Vegas because no other place is like New Orleans or Las Vegas. There’s no place on earth like New York or San Francisco. If there’s nothing unique about your town, then your town is just a commodity. And we know that commodities compete on one factor: price. Being a commodity player leads to weak marketplace leverage. That’s why firms are always trying to differentiate themselves in a marketplace.

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Time Lapse Portugal

This week a time lapse video of Portugal by Kirill Neiezhmakov, featuring Sesimbra and Lisbon. The scene transition technique is very cool. A beautiful piece but my gut reaction was that the beauty seems at odds with the country’s economic malaise. Best in full screen high definition. if the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

As a bonus time lapse, here’s another installment in a series on LA, “Time-LAX 3.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

When the People Are Corrupted

This is another installment in my series on corruption. The New York Times ran an article last week about Buddy Cianci entering the race for mayor of Providence. Cianci is a larger than life figure in Rhode Island. Dubbed the “Prince of Providence,” he served two previous stints as mayor of the city – both times ending up forced from office due to felony convictions.

I don’t know the details of the first case, in which he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge over attacking someone with “a lit cigarette, ashtray and fireplace log.” There’s got to be more to that story than I know because I can’t imagine a felony charge resulting from something like that, or that he’s plead no contest knowing it would get him removed from office.

The second time was he was convicted of racketeering charges (though actually acquitted of all but one of the things he was charged with) as part of an FBI investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” that resulted in a number of convictions. He did 4+ years in federal prison as a result.

Now Cianci is back and running for office again. Apparently he remains quite popular and there is so much fear among many that he’ll actually win – he’s running as an independent – that various candidates have dropped out of the race in an effort to avoid splitting the vote and letting Cianci somehow slip in.

The fact that Cianci is considered a viable candidate for mayor despite being notoriously corrupt shows something that tends to happen in communities where corruption is the norm. Namely that the people themselves become corrupted in the process.

This actually happened long ago in Rhode Island, which seems to have been crooked about as long as it’s been around. One of the most famous pieces of writing about the state is Lincoln Steffens 1905 McClure’s Magazine screed called “Rhode Island: A State of Sale.” Here’s what he had to say about the matter:

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are upbuilding is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far — the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.

Rather than just businessmen buying politicians, the politicians bought voters, and virtually ever voter in the state was on the take, and in fact became quite peeved if their vote wasn’t purchased:

Nine of the towns are absolutely purchasable; that is to say, they “go the way the money goes.” Eleven more can be influenced by the use of money. Many of their voters won’t go to the polls at all unless “there is something in it.” But there need not be much in it. Governor Garvin quoted a political leader in one town who declared that if neither party had money, but one had a box of cigars, “my town would go for that party — if the workers would give up the cigars.” In another town one party had but one man in it who did not take money, and he never voted. A campaign marching club organized for a presidential campaign paraded every night with enthusiasm so great that the leaders thought it would be unnecessary to pay for votes in this town; few of the members voted. Another time, when no money turned up at a State election, one town, by way of rebuke to the regular party managers, elected a Prohibition candidate to the Assembly.

In this environment, the public is mostly indifferent to corruption and can even embrace it as part of the civic identity. Hence the viability of a known crook as a mayoral candidate.

It’s the same in Illinois. Even many of my highly educated professional friends there actually take pride in the state’s corruption, cracking boastful jokes about how it only proves Chicago is the best or something.

As Scott Reeder put it in an article earlier this year:

Well, another state legislator is heading to prison. You won’t hear much outrage in Springfield. Or dismay for that matter. In the grand scheme of things, the conviction of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, on bribery charges is picayune. You’ll hear it whispered around the statehouse: “He ‘only’ took $7,000.”

llinoisans have become jaded to criminality among those we elect. A few years back, some Springfield wag printed up bumper stickers that said, “My Governor is a Bigger Crook than Your Governor.” This kind of cynicism has metastases through the electorate leaving political tumors of apathy, inevitability and suspicion.

Derrick Smith, the representative of $7000 bribe fame, was expelled from the House back in 2012 after being indicted, but actually won re-election with 63% of the vote.

And this bit in an article about corruption in Springfield:

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues: “The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

It’s one of the challenges that makes cleaning up corruption so hard. Once it has dug roots deep into the civic soil, the public becomes co-dependent and so there is no constituency for change.

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Reinventing Higher Education

It’s no secret that the status quo in higher education is facing a lot of pressure from things like skyrocketing tuition, ballooning student loan debt, people questioning the need for higher education, difficulties graduates are getting established in careers, etc.

One organization focused on helping universities navigate the transition to a new future and boost higher educational attainment rates in the US is the Lumina Foundation. Lumina is a $1 billion foundation in Indianapolis – no, they don’t give out scholarships! – focused on “increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.”

I recently sat down with Danette Howard, VP of Policy and Mobilization for Lumina, and talked a bit about their work and the future of higher ed. Danette was formerly Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland. If the audio player embed doesn’t play for you, click over to Soundcloud to listen.

As a preview, here’s an excerpt of her response to those, especially in tech industry, challenging the idea, particularly heard in the tech industry, that people don’t need to go to college:

We hear all the time about these incredible outliers. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are not your traditional college dropouts, and I really wish that people would stop holding them up as the example. Because for every one of them, there are millions of others who also didn’t complete college and whose lives are not nearly as successful as they would be if they had some type of post-secondary credential, in my opinion. And, it’s a fact that post-secondary education is still the best predictor of lifting oneself out of poverty. So if you want to have a better life for yourself, and you are starting at the lowest income levels, your surest best of doing that is getting a college degree or credential. That’s an undisputed fact.

Update 9/9: I want to add as a disclosure that I’m a finalist in a competition that’s being sponsored by Lumina. Though as far as I know Danette has nothing to do with that. I first made contact with her as part of researching an article on college tuition.

On the same topic, City Journal also has an article out called “Slimming the College-Tuition Beast.” Here’s an excerpt:

Some states are proposing to get rid of pay-as-you-go tuition altogether. Citing the “increasing unaffordability of college education,” Oregon’s legislature unanimously approved a plan last summer—“Pay It Forward, Pay It Back”—that would make tuition free for resident students attending the state’s public universities and community colleges. In exchange, the students would sign “binding contracts” requiring them to pay a percentage of their future income, over a set number of years, to the state. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) will determine how much students will pay and for how long, and come up with a funding source for the first 15 to 20 years of the program. After HECC works out the details, it will send its recommendations to the 2015 legislative session. The plan will launch initially in a few pilot schools.

Given the good deal that Pay It Forward offers students, it’s no surprise that the program emerged from a classroom—one belonging to Portland State University professor Barbara Dudley. A cofounder of Oregon’s left-wing Working Families Party, Dudley wanted to offer a senior capstone class on a subject that was, in her words, “relevant to the community.” So she chose the economics and politics of student debt, asking her students to propose a solution to the growing tuition burden. After reviewing research from Seattle’s Economic Opportunity Institute, the students came up with Pay It Forward. Kevin Rackham, one of Dudley’s former students, tells me that he lobbied for the idea “because of my experience with debt, because I know how much this debt is going to impede my ability to do things like buy a car and house and start a family.” After developing Pay It Forward further with the Oregon Students Association and the Working Families Party, Dudley’s students approached a group of state legislators, who introduced a bill based on their suggestions.

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Chicago Riverwalk Construction

The Architect’s Newspaper recently put up a post with a video from Sasaki Associates showing construction progress on the Chicago Riverwalk. It’s mostly construction shots, but if you want to see more design renderings, check out this HuffPo piece. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo.

It’s debatable whether spending $100 million on a downtown riverwalk really ought to be a top priority given Chicago’s problems. But spending on major civic statement projects in defiance of circumstances has a long and storied tradition in the urban world, and may in fact be a necessary part of what it means to be a city (or a human being for that matter). Getting it right is a tough challenge with no easy answer, as today’s article in New Geography about Chicago by Roger Weber makes clear.

Turning Around Rhode Island

Channel 10 in Providence recently did a town hall style meeting with various civic leaders from around the state, looking for ideas to reverse the state’s economic malaise. It’s long and probably of specialized interest, but I wanted to include for those following the Ocean State’s travails. If the video doesn’t display, click over to channel 10. h/t Andy Cutler

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Thoughts On Eliminating Systemic Corruption

This is the third installment of my series on corruption (see part one and part two). Today I’ll share a few of my thoughts on the matter, particularly with regards to US cities. Please consider these incomplete and a work in progress.

Corruption seems to be incredibly durable where it has taken root. I mentioned before the continued drumbeat of scandal in Illinois, despite a slew of high profile prosecutions there. Chicago is also the homeland of community organizing, but despite all of the tactical successes of Saul Alinksy and his many followers over the years, little durable change has been produced.

But in many cases reform isn’t even attempted seriously. This is for several reasons. Many urban areas have no real partisan political competition. Single party systems (which can include Republican suburbs as well as Democratic big cities) remove a check on abuse. That’s why even though I’m a supporter of local autonomy, I recognize that state oversight is important. Also, in places with lots of corruption, the parties can tend to be more like business partners than competitors. In Illinois, columnist John Kass has appropriately labeled this general environment “the Combine.”

A tough commentator like Kass isn’t always around either. Molotch noted back in his growth machine paper that the local newspaper was part of the growth machine nexus. This means local media is often more civic cheerleader than watchdog. Fiscal distress in the newspaper industry has left most papers a shell of their former self in any case. This is also putting pressure on reporters and columnists to be working on their exit strategy by writing favorable coverage of the establishment in hopes of a job later. So there isn’t necessarily a tough, strong media on watch.

Local prosecutors are elected officials who are part of the political system and are thus not motivated to change things. What’s more, aggressive corruption prosecutions at the local level always have a partisan air about them. Far better would be more disinterested federal prosecutors. However, federal prosecutors are political appointees, and by tradition are selected by senators from the states. This often neuters them as well. (It’s notable and no surprise that it was maverick independent Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald who picked Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) as Chicago area prosecutor. Has a more establishment Illinois Republican held that seat, there’s a good chance Blago and Ryan might not have ended up in prison).

Add this up and there can actually be few voices or players of significant influence who want things to change. How do we make progress in that case?

I think there are two key pieces of preliminary research that need to be undertaken:

One is to create a power map of the city. That is, identifying the power players in a community and the relationships between them. This can be time consuming, but there are ways to do it. For example, looking at interlocking board relationships is a common strategy. Sean Safford did something like this for his famous “Garden Club” study of Youngstown to show the social networks of Youngstown and Allentown. A leftist academic named Dan La Botz used the technique for a study called “Who Rules Cincinnati?” looking at that city. We want to unearth who the real players are (which is not always obvious), what their relationships are, and how decisions get made. As part of this you are filtering out so-called “NINAs” – people with No Influence and No Authority. (Most bloggers are NINAs, for example).

Two is to do the historical analysis I’ve advocated elsewhere. This is important because a lot of political relationships go way back, and you need to get a sense of how the urban regime functions over time. Also you want to understand a bit of the city’s culture, which is fundamental to any change.

Armed with this information, you analyze the system to determine its weak points and design a disruption strategy. I’m not sure what exactly this would look like – it obviously depends on the research findings – but I’ll give three levels of response types: avoiding naivete, avoiding co-dependence, and building a political effort for change.

1. Avoid Naivete. I think too often we urbanists are naive when it comes to politics. We tend to be motivated by some personal vision of the public good, and so assume other people must similarly be so motivated. That’s not always the case. And you can’t take what political people tell you at face value. They excel at telling people what they want to hear or mouthing some of the right words, but don’t necessarily assume they mean them or that if they do they will expend personal capital on the behalf of what they say. My rule of thumb here: judge political people and power broker types by what they do, not by what they say. And then ask what Occam’s Razor suggests about the reasons why they did what they did (which is often self-interest).

2. Avoid becoming co-dependent. A lot of times I listen to people complain about bad decisions or this and that about their local community, but they don’t ever speak out publicly or challenge what’s going on. Their theory seems to be to prioritize their standing in the system (maintaining the relationship if you will) on the idea that this gives them the ability to be an influencer and help nudge things in the right direction. That’s not necessarily wrong. But we see a lot in personal relationships that sometimes we do the same with people who have addictions or other behavioral problems, and then before we know it, we aren’t helping them, but rather we’ve become co-dependent enablers of bad decisions and immoral behavior. I think we need to look at many of our cities as the civic equivalent of alcoholics who refuse to get help. You may still love them, but engaging in their dysfunction is not beneficial. Instead, stand aside let them reap the harvest of what they are sowing. Don’t put your stamp of validation on it. Realistically this is a difficult decision for a lot of people because they aren’t in a good place to put their job at risk, etc. But until there’s a price to be paid for the way people are doing business, don’t expect any change. It may well be that any one individual or organization is of no importance, but you have to start somewhere.

3. Create a political movement for change. Ultimately, change in the political system will require a political movement. As the power broker class is as a rule uninterested in change, this will need to be a populist type movement. I see three templates of this.

One is the insurgent outsider candidate who wins election and proceeds to start cleaning house. An example here might be the election of Antanas Mockus as mayor of Bogota. The documentary about him that I previously linked is well worth watching. Mockus was quite a character, but he had some ideas about eliminating corruption and changing societal expectations that were effective, if unconventional. For example, he fired the entire police traffic squad and replaced them with mimes. The problem is that you need a candidate who can get elected, has high moral fiber and strength of character himself, and who has the chops to make change. Generally speaking, insurgent candidates seem to fail on one of those points. It’s especially hard to govern as an outsider, as you don’t have a posse to bring with you to the job, and so end up dependent on the usual suspects to run things and quickly get turned into their pawn.

Two is some type of grass roots movement. I think it’s clear that the most effective grass roots political movement in the US in recent years has been the Tea Party. It may be that their goals and policies aren’t shared by some, but you can’t deny their impact. This makes them a useful case study.

I happen to believe that the intransigence which is so bemoaned by many is actually the secret to their strength and effectiveness. They are willing to burn down their own party’s house rather than compromise. I once had a senior staffer from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign tell me point blank, “Better a Democrat than a RINO” (Republican In Name Only).

Because of this, the Tea Party has to be taken seriously by Republicans. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street got taken out like the trash and was a completely impotent movement. Nor have we seen any legitimate leftist populist insurgency at the national level. Why not? It’s simple: no progressive is ever willing to defect from the Democratic reservation if it would mean a Republican would win. No matter how much they may refer the President as “0bama” (zero-Bama), they will have his back in any conflict or scandal with the Republicans. Hence, they lose the game of chicken every single time. You only see real progressive movements in places where the Republican threat is non-existent, like New York City, for example.

The lesson in my view is that a local reform movement probably needs to be pretty hard core. But it also needs to intelligently attack the structure based on all that research I talked about earlier, and put some thought into how to effect systemic change and how to effectively govern if it obtains power. Though in this case the ultimate agenda may not be electoral control. The Tea Party seems to have been largely beaten back, but they certainly achieved their goal of shifting Republican policy to the right. The fact that there’s even a debate about reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank shows their influence, for example.

The third template would be some type of lawfare approach. Michael Shakman’s lawsuits over patronage in Cook County, Illinois are a good example of this. This would obviously require a large bankroll and a lot of patience. I tend to as a rule dislike approaches like this as anti-democratic, but clearly lawfare tactics can be effective.

These are just some musings. As I said, I don’t have a fully thought out program in mind, so please share your thoughts.

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Cutting To Invest In Kokomo, Indiana

fairy-tale
A whimsical fairy tale convenience store in Kokomo, Indiana

Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a paradigm called “cut to invest.” The idea is to cut spending on operations and lower priority items in order finance investments in higher priority infrastructure or other projects. Nice theory, but who is actually doing it?

One example is Kokomo, Indiana. It’s not the mythical tropical island paradise you may have heard about from the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a small industrial city of around 57,000 people about 45 miles north of Indianapolis. After I posted a piece from Eric McAfee about Kokomo’s intelligent rail trail design, someone from the city reached out and invited me to come for a visit. So that’s what I did this week.

What I discovered is that Kokomo has done a lot more than just build a trail. They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, inaugurated transit service with a free bus circulator, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing. Like Eric, however, I wasn’t just struck by the projects themselves, but they obvious attention to detail that went into their design. And especially by the fact that they’ve done it almost all by paying cash – no debt – in a city that went through an economic wringer during the recession.

A lot, though not all, of this has been pushed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s gone from factory worker to politician during his career. He also appears to be an urban planning geek, as the stack of books behind his desk shows.

books

I sat down with the mayor and chatted about how the city pulled off this program of investment. After the jump I’ll visually walk you through a number of the projects. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on. I mentioned the pedestrian bumpouts. Here’s an example of one:

Pretty much every downtown intersection has a treatment like this, including landscaping. Taking a page from other cities’ playbook, Kokomo has invested in beautification, including not only landscaping of pedestrian bumpouts, but also hanging flower planters we’ll see later. These were actually put into place by Goodnight’s predecessor and were a huge source of controversy at the time, though seem to be well-accepted by now.

Here’s another example on a street heading out of downtown.

bumpouts2

I’m actually of two minds about bumpouts. They do facilitate pedestrian crossings, but also can force bicyclists out of the curb lane into traffic. I’ve generally found them obnoxious when bicycling. The street widths through the bumpouts look ok here, but I didn’t put it to the test. A number of streets have painted bicycle lanes, where this is definitely not a problem.

Eric’s blog post was about the Industrial Heritage Trail. Here’s a shot of that through downtown:

I think this is really attractive. It reminds me of a red brick version of the Indy Cultural Trail. This section actually has a separate sidewalk from the biking trail, but that’s not the norm. Kokomo has really made a point to include some ped-bike protection wherever possible. So the landscape buffer is narrow, but effective and attractive. (It doesn’t use bioswale type green stormwater detention like the Indy Cultural Trail, though). There’s also ample street lighting and street furnishings.

As one nice touch, note the back side of the stop sign. It’s black to match the color of the other items, not just plain galvanized steel. This treatment is done throughout downtown and adds a bit of refinement.

Here’s another shot of a segment a bit south. Note the bespoke bike rack.

There aren’t people in these photos, you might have noticed. I was doing this walking tour on a Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t super-crowded but I did see multiple people out biking and walking on these trails.

On the south side of downtown, the IHT crosses and east-west path called the “Walk of Excellence.” I love the name because reminding Hoosiers that a focus on excellence is an absolute must to survive the brutal global competition. Here’s a shot:

woe3

Again, very attractive. And again, a narrow but nice buffer between the trail and the street, even though the roadway is little more than an alley or driveway. This is very consistently done, in another place even where the trail just passes through a parking lot. That’s what I mean by attention to detail. There’s a stream running to the left of the trail which adds to the pleasant effect of walking along it.

Here’s a street crossing:

woe-intersection

The trail has its own traffic control signs, as well as a street sign near bicycling eye level to tell users what street they are at. In my experience, that’s too rare in trail design. You can also see bumpouts here along with large concrete planters that add beauty and make the crosswalk and street narrowing very visible to drivers.

Here’s another crossing example, showing the different crosswalk shading as well:

woe-intersection3

Here’s a bike route sign, with the city seal on it. That’s another nice touch and one that shows a certain pride of place versus a generic sign.

bike-route-sign

Moving on, here’s a median treatment on a major street. This goes on quite a distance:

median3

Not only is this very nice, including more flowers, decorative street lights, etc, but the metal railings are especially unique. The railings were actually custom fabricated by the high school’s shop class. Not only was this great real world practice for the students, but the city paid for the railings and the students are all ending up with $1,000 scholarships to college out of it. I’m told this was the superintendent’s idea. (Kokomo’s superintendent grew up in Corydon in my county and his wife actually still works part time in Laconia, the tiny town where I grew up!)

Eric mentioned the school district’s International Baccalaureate program. But I don’t believe he mentioned that they also run an exchange student program. IIRC, students from 15 countries attend high school in Kokomo, and a number of them are actually housed in dormitories in downtown Kokomo. This injects life into downtown and creates a more international flavor in the city. I didn’t take pictures, but the school district is also renovating a 1914 vintage auditorium back to its original design that will be very cool (and also paid for without recourse to debt).

Trails and bumpouts have a fairly limited cost, but the city is also doing some bigger ticket items including two recently-constructed fire stations, a million dollar renovation of city hall, a parking garage, and a baseball stadium. Pictures of those in a moment but it’s worth ask how the city was able to pay for them without debt.

The first is that there was no legacy debt. I’m not anti-debt in all cases, but if a mature city like Kokomo is saddled with heavy debt repayments, that’s not good. By not having any legacy debt, the city’s tax base isn’t encumbered by repayments. A good part of our federal deficit these days is simply interest on our gargantuan debt load. That’s a dynamic Kokomo avoided. (The city does have some utility debt, but it’s revenue bond type stuff).

Secondly, the mayor says that he was able to reduce the city’s workforce by close to 20%, going from 521 employees just before he took office to only 415 today. That’s a significant reduction, especially given the fact that during that time the city annexed seven square miles and added 11,000 new residents (though some of them were already receiving some city services). Some of this was achieved through efficiencies. For example, the city went to single side garbage pickup, where all garbage is collected on one side of the street, eliminating the need for trucks to traverse each street twice. The mayor, council members, and department heads have also had a pay freeze during that time, with at least some time in there in which all city employees had their pay frozen during the recession. Keep in mind, the city experienced a severe revenue crunch during the auto bankruptcies, and Chrysler, the town’s largest employer, failed to pay its tax bill. This created an urgent need for cuts.

It’s possible the cuts and freezes have gone too far. I don’t know the full history of what has happened to services. But I speculate that having something like this can potentially act like a forest fire. It allows for longer term, healthier growth, whereas continuous growth in employees and compensation over time leads to serious fiscal problems.

In any case, these reductions freed up cash flow as the city recovered, letting Kokomo allocate a decent chunk of its revenues to capital investment. This is running at about 5% of the overall budget, plus an additional sizable sum (for a city of that size) from an economic development tax. This is an example of the cut to invest strategy in action. Without the cuts and tight budget management, there would be no money to invest. Indeed, some other Indiana community have found themselves asking questions like “what fire station should we close?” as they feel the sting of decline and tax caps.

Here are a few more photos, then some additional observations. Here’s that parking garage I mentioned. (This was originally debt financed, but the city paid off the bonds early when it decided to borrow for the baseball stadium).

parking-garage

This supposedly has some all day free parking, designed to attract downtown employees. There’s also going to be apartments on the top floor. It looks like there’s no ground floor retail, however, which will create a bit of a dead zone.

Here’s the YMCA construction site across the street. You can see the old Y in the background:

ymca

A painted railroad viaduct on Sycamore St. heading into downtown:

viaduct

An alley treatment:

alley

The baseball stadium under construction:

baseball-stadium

Here’s a picture of an older style public housing building. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s done in a traditional duplex style reminiscent of early suburbia.

public-housing-old

Here’s a new development in a more urban form next door:

public-housing-new

I think the fenestration is poor which gives the design a public housing look. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the city is even thinking about the design of public housing downtown as part of its strategy. After all, why shouldn’t public housing residents get to take advantage of high quality urbanism downtown like everyone else?

Overall, I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When I talked to the mayor about this he took the long view, saying that Columbus, Indiana has been at its architecture program for decades, that Indy’s sports strategy is 40 years old, etc. Substantive change takes time. For example, Mayor Goodnight says it isn’t realistic to think that older workers who commute in to Kokomo will uproot themselves out of their established lives in other communities and relocate. But he’s more hopeful that as workers retire and are replaced, he’ll capture the “next generation” labor force.

That’s obviously a more realistic ambition. But will an impatient public buy it? We’ll see. Clearly Goodnight has his critics. More than one of them has dubbed him the “King of Kokomo.” A newspaper article fretted about gentrification (level of realistic concern about that: zero). I didn’t do a deep dive into the other side, so keep that in mind reading this. But the baseball stadium would appear to be the most controversial item as near as I detect.

Regardless of any controversy, when you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

Historic buildings on Kokomo’s courthouse square. The tenants testify to the industrial heritage of the community.
union-storefronts

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The Independent City

Last week’s episode of Monocle 24 radio’s show The Urbanist was about independent cities. If you’ve listened before, you’ll know that their episode themes are applied loosely, but there are a couple of specific segments on “city-state” type of constructs, one is the very first segment, which is a hypothetical discussion about London, and the second a short commentary about Singapore starting around 30:00. If the embed doesn’t display, click over to Monocle’s site to listen.

Other segments include a piece about a Liverpool discount program for independent businesses, a segment about Istanbul that immediately follows the Singapore one, and a look at New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood starting at around 43:00.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Istanbul, London, New York, Singapore

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Dynamic Scotland and Other Timelapses

Scotland holds its referendum on independent September 18th. So what better time to show this timelapse of that kilted land. You may want to click over to Vimeo for the high definition version. h/t Likecool

After my recent post of a couple Vancouver timelapses, a reader mailed me a link to another one. If it doesn’t display for you, click over to You Tube.

Here’s a timelapse giving us, shall we say, a more atmospheric look at San Francisco. It’s a timelapse of the fog rolling in and out of the city. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

Lastly, if you’re into transport timelapses, here’s one taken at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Pretty sweet. If it doesn’t display for you, click here h/t Likecool

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