Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary

In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.

However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.

Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.

Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train

Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.

The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.

As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.

Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.

Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway

Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement

Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables

When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”

Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.

More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.

Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.

Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.

Track entrance, photo by author

Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.

Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author

Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.

Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.

Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)

Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.

It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.

I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.

First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.

By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.

There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.

If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.

It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?

As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?

From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?

And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?

But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.

Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website

Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.

There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)

So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.

Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.

Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.

But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?

And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.

Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway

It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?

Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.

But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?

Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.

If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.

To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.

As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

Photo from City of Newark website

A visual pleasure inside and out, Newark’s Penn Station is more than a pretty face. An excellent workhorse, this station helped save one of America’s most troubled cities. Seemingly married to a special Destiny, this station was born in spite of the Great Depression and has endured as a leading Economic Engine; pulling its city through half a Century of hardship.

Photo by Robert Munson

Score: 79 (see full scorecard)
Category: Economic Engine

Overview: Stations in this series’ third category, Economic Engine, perform perhaps the key function of daily urban life: facilitate transit systems that give a competitive edge to downtown employers and retail. This strategic goal helps explain why so many cities recently want to redevelop their central stations and, in the last third of the 20th Century, why preservationists succeeded so often in keeping alive their civic centerpieces.

To distinguish Economic Engines from the highest category (called the Sustainables), a related theory assumes that stations centering well their mobility networks also boost property values with more Transit Oriented Development. This creates a happy economic cycle for a growing middle class that uses transit more; raising both tax and farebox revenue, while creating savings from lowered household transportation costs and government road maintenance. This combination puts a network on the road to fiscal sustainability; particularly as discussed in this series’ earlier article on Philadelphia’s growing middle class that resides downtown. We should expect more of these more complete downtowns as the sustainable era emerges.

Usually with too little residential, Economic Engines are less complete and only stimulate the commercial downtown; but should improve the network as steps toward our more robust category. (While most of these correlations are good, causation is still squishy.)

Newark’s Penn Station is a good test of this TOD theory that transit is an economic enabler and stimulant. In my opinion, Newark potentially centers the nation’s largest suburban operator. (This assumes two combinations under good governance: PATH and NJ Transit technically count as one integrated system; and, Newark’s Penn and Broad Street stations are essentially one station with eight lines connected by a one mile light rail.)  Yet, Newark is only a small, mid-sized city with 278,000 residents while Long Island’s railroad (currently the nation’s largest) can serve some 7.7 million.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone

Newark’s relatively successful commercial downtown looks like a much larger city. But its chief obstacle is the City’s middle class is way too small. While having some diverse neighborhoods, Newark still has the highest poverty rate (25%) of any American city. So if Newark turns around that statistic by using its transit advantage to rebuild its middle class, it further makes the social argument for every other city to invest in its station and reinvent its mobility network. Until that happy day, other cites can be well served by this analysis of Newark’s main station and how it encourages one of the nation’s better transit systems.

How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn

This station has two key factors in its equation: design; and transit as a top priority.

A great design may not be mandatory for success, but it sure helps. If a station is designed well, its functions fall into place easier and are less costly to update. If a station functions well, it gets used more and it is more possible for a downtown to flourish. Newark proves these operational and capital efficiencies. Twice. Most improbable was the second time; occurring now.

The first time, of course, was when Penn Station was built. With a 1935 ribbon-cutting and carefully orchestrated promotion, this equal investment from the City and Pennsylvania RR promised to work well for everyone. And it still does.

The station functions well. Integrating its three levels, one walks down from the almost airy platforms into a concourse with a relatively high ceiling so it doesn’t seem as if eight tracks could have trains rumbling above you. The concourse then smoothly distributes passengers to parking, taxis, buses or the exquisite Art Deco detail of the waiting room pictured above all on the street level. The basement is a light-rail subway; a short ride connecting to universities, medical centers and the Broad Street Station. Here is the agency’s recent blueprint. (The extensive local bus station is unmarked, but adjoins Penn Station’s north wall.)

While still working well through the 1970s, Newark’s decline caught up with the Station. It has undergone two decades of updates starting with $41M from NJ Transit in the 1990s. Then in this century and largely using the above drawings, NJT teamed up with federal money (including 31M from the 2009 ARRA stimulus.)  All this brought the Station to as good a condition as could be expected; given the economic disaster of many Newark neighborhoods.

For more details on Newark Penn, visit this website sponsored by Amtrak that helps citizens preserve their stations.

Street map posted throughout ped-shed, photographed by the author.

The concourse and connection to other modes are done well (see scorecard details.) As in other good stations, improving passenger convenience and increases ridership. But, the real reward is the economic impact on the downtown. The above map captures this best. Its economic anchors are Prudential (absolutely key) and quasi-government corporations (New Jersey’s largest light and gas company and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.)  Typical of recovering downtowns, it also has government centers.

Overall, Newark’s employers are not much different than you would expect a former industrial and port town to have after four decades of disinvestment preceded by a particularly awful 1967 race riot and very rapid white flight. In brief, the downtown needs more private employers.

But, that problem is being turned around. Of the recent large scale construction in all of New Jersey, one-third is in Newark; despite the City having 4% of the state’s population and the disadvantage of its per household income being 42% less than the state’s.

There is further evidence that Newark’s transit quality is attracting capital. It has combined well with the tax breaks to build a downtown sports arena for its NHL team. (Prudential got naming rights.) Panasonic’s North American HQ was just lured from neighboring, upriver Secaucus and added an attractive high-rise to Newark’s surprising skyline. While lures other than tax breaks are used, transit is the key amenity; and Newark and New Jersey know how to use it.

Many give Prudential credit for saving this downtown. I add that it probably took the largest life insurer (whose portfolio is invested heavily long-term in real estate) to recognize long-term value of a town with a great station and good transit.

Newark equals Chicago’s 26.5% of ridership to work. And transit should help rebuild Newark’s middle class to overcome downtown’s main drawbacks: it has very few residents, sparse retail and partial amenities that residents require.

Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential

Newark has good bones for downtown residential. It has the second lowest rate of car ownership, after New York City.  In addition to transit, other assets should be leveraged for downtown residential. For example, four major institutions (Rutgers-Newark, NJ Institute of Technology, the nation’s largest health service university and a community college) bring some 50,000 students to downtown’s University Heights. These largely commuter colleges could facilitate more housing for students and staff.

As with many cities revitalizing its downtown using the “eds & meds” strategy, Newark knows it has to diversify; as represented in its 2008 “Living Downtown Plan” that stretches to University Heights on the west and troubled areas around Broad Street Station on the north. (Plan consultants were SOM and Sam Schwartz Engineering).

As Mayor for seven years, Newark’s Cory Booker has done much to refurbish his city’s image. In addition to imprinting many economic deals, he is a public safety champion. During the 1990s, Newark was considered the most dangerous city in America. Mayor Booker, an African-American, has been a frontline advocate for restoring public safety. This needs to continue if the downtown is to attract enough residents.  Yet continuation depends on his successor, as Mr. Booker is likely to move up as the next Senator from this state.

The mar on Booker’s legacy is he has done too little for poor neighborhoods. Because some border the downtown and are stigmatized by housing projects, this remains an obstacle. In this series on how stations lead transit systems that support a middle class, I cannot start or finish the argument that we have a welfare regime that perpetuates poor people’s plight. But, we should not forget that transit is one of the easiest ways to reduce household costs; enough so every family can save more and move up the ladder.

Unlikely to get as complete a package as Mr. Booker to serve as its next Mayor, Newark needs a strategy that persists past his dynamic persona and take its currently stymied “Living Downtown Plan” and make it a reality. Let me propose a deal for new methods of regional redevelopment. (This concept will be explored throughout this series.) To encapsulate this strategy, look at this map of the PATH.

The Port Authority Trans Hudson is the nation’s 7th largest subway system by ridership. The four small cities it serves have 620,000 residents for an impressive ratio of 3 residents for every 2 riders, highly concentrated. (The nation’s next largest belongs to Philadelphia’s subway with a ratio of 5 residents to 1 rider.) If you add the four New Jersey Transit commuter lines that connect Newark (Penn and Broad stations) to New York’s Penn Station. Suddenly, poor Newark is a very rich transit connection. As the state’s largest city, Newark should be a natural mega-hub for the New York metropolis.

My future article on New York stations uses two assumptions. First, Midtown Manhattan has too many people for transit improvements to work cost-effectively. Second, there are cheaper places to live than Manhattan. Both proven.

Newark has an under-utilized and effective transit network.  And second, Newark is an inexpensive place to live.

This begs a few questions. Wouldn’t the world’s main financial center benefit from a farm team eight miles away that already is the nation’s third largest insurance center?  And for the common sense and stability of our financial system, shouldn’t investment banking learn something from the nation’s largest life insurer that required zero public dollars to make it through the worst real estate market since The Great Depression?  And besides, didn’t banks just make its “Wall Street West” by bringing many players to Jersey City, Newark’s peer on the PATH? (Jersey City has four PATH stops.) And didn’t this expansion raise Hoboken and Jersey City housing prices to those in many parts of Manhattan? Does this make Newark the next city to expand to?

And because it is in-land, Newark would cost substantially less to bulwark against hurricane flooding; possibly a show-stopping cost for Manhattan and Jersey City?

So if all these assumptions make sense, the clincher is: what agency helps fix this match-made-in-Heaven between the first and second largest cities in the New York metropolitan area? And don’t forget the bride’s dowry: Newark has the metro’s second largest airport and it is the most convenient to Manhattan; plus, it has the largest container port on the East Coast.

I’m not done having fun with this scenario… nor laying out its logic for Newark and, by analogy, how other central stations can serve as Economic Engines. Solving transit’s problems are increasingly expensive and ineffective because of how we govern our urban areas. If we are to compete in an era of sustainability and if that model rebuilds regions with mega-centers (instead of one over-crowded midtown), then the New York metro needs to take advantage of Newark’s assets and Newark needs New York’s investments. In ways politicians obviously don’t understand, cooperation will pay great dividends to everyone. (But first, we must un-employ the turf-fighters).

Newark’s social problems won’t get solved overnight. But over-time, they must be improved as they currently use public monies very ineffectively and these otherwise could get a much higher social and economic return if invested in infrastructure. As a drain, urban poverty is a strategic obstacle that prevents transit systems from getting on a path to fiscal sustainability.

So for today… How can every city’s central station, as an Economic Engine, do preliminary work to overcome this obstacle?  Answer: we still are finding out.

But… History gives us more answers than we admit. Consider the exhibit created from a brochure promoting Newark Penn at its 1935 ribbon-cutting. This exhibit fills the waiting room’s far wall. Reading this one panel below, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Railroad saw something worth promoting and, in so doing, defined this Station’s destiny.

Photo by Robert Munson

In 1935, the City of Newark had just split the cost of building the Station. This investment tied New York to Newark’s downtown. Four generations later, it still pays dividends. This is a great public value and should make taxpayers feel good (something that doesn’t happen often enough). Newark’s Station remains a great opportunity for all types of progress. But, it is under-utilized; blocked by out-dated laws for redevelopment.

Newark Penn is an Economic Engine for the downtown that is running at, let’s say, half capacity. Who is failing to use that asset to serve public goals?  Let’s show politicians and transit bureaucrats the light. And if that doesn’t work, show them the door.

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Chicago Union Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

The photo above is how I used to think of Union Station: the architecturally famous Great Hall. But as the nation’s third largest station, I always wondered why so few people were in it. Before I share the answer, please allow this summary background.

Score: 61 (see full scorecard)
Category: Inexcusable

This series’ previous post analyzed Philadelphia’s Center City stations as representing the top category called “The Sustainables;” those stations leading their transit systems toward fiscal sustainability. Other stations serve transit metropolises, but are not leaders because each has a fatal flaw. To help these flawed stations, we create a special class called “The Inexcusables.”

The Inexcusables are often trapped by lousy politics and solving each station’s flaw requires an effective governing structure. This article will expose that flaw for Chicago’s Union Station, the dominant hub in my hometown. Also typical of The Inexcusables, Union Station’s key flaws derive from mistakes made decades ago and that have not been publicly confessed; compounding the problem and raising the cost of solutions. These Inexcusable patterns betray the public’s trust and must be changed before the public invests sufficiently.

In the final analysis, the Second City’s grandest station is the center of one of the nation’s largest, disintegrating transit networks. Today, agencies are broke and don’t seem to know how to correct their mistakes.

Yet, this insolvency can be Chicago’s chance to make a new main station to lead this transit town into an era of sustainable transportation. Multiple proposals for a West Loop Transportation Center are promising, but collect dust due to lack of funding.

To understand how this condition evolved and how we can break through it, let’s start this history when Union Station was helping Chicago become the nation’s rail center.

The Best A Station Can Be: Integration Leads To Prosperity

Built by Burnham’s firm as a consortium of five competitors and led by the Pennsylvania RR (the nation’s largest railroad), Union Station tells us collaboration can serve everyone’s passengers better with easier transfers and, thereby, increase rail travel overall. In short, integrated systems lead to growth. When completed in 1922, Unions Station repeated a similar collaboration that built the central depot of the 1880s. To handle Chicago’s record-breaking growth during the previous three decades, the 1922 Station tripled capacity and innovated by terminating 24 northern and southern tracks into one convenient hub. All good… and soon-to-be-great.

Boosting economic growth, this consolidation of five companies’ terminals allowed Chicago’s Central Business District to expand; having been hemmed in by eight rail-yards and terminals. Adapting the laws innovated for New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Chicago permitted 1920s’ office buildings to be built over tracks; thus expanding the CBD and its convenient access by commuters.

The collaboration that built the 1880s depot and its replacement by the 1922 Station bookended Chicago’s ascent as the nation’s transportation center. This leverage, in turn, gave the metropolis the edge to emerge as the nation’s manufacturing center.

Union Stations’ early economic triumphs are matched by its long-history of aesthetic awards. The most recent was in 2012 with a “Great Public Space” award given by the American Planning Association. This coincided with other accolades derived from the publicity around the $65 million update, mostly of the station’s Great Hall and Amtrak facilities.

Bad As A Transit Town Can Get: System Dis-integration

The way Union Station works today is similar, metaphorically, to my closeup of this clock that centers the Great Hall. (Honestly, this is no Photoshop.)

Key functions are off just enough to distort other aspects; multiplying dissatisfaction, particularly during rush hour. The causes are mid-century mistakes made when we thought inter-city train ridership would decline further and, hence, the Station could downsize. All inter-city travel lost from its 1940s peak has been replaced by commuter ridership, plus another 20% daily ridership in this century. Union Station’s concourse overflows with passengers and cannot catch up with the times. The Station that helped make Chicago the nation’s train center now holds Chicago back.

Serving as terminus for half of Chicagoland’s suburban lines, Union Station declined for the last half century; making passenger convenience worse.

For example, today’s Union Station commuters and visitors connect to a subway via an unprotected two block walk south that, as a statement on priorities, enters under the Congress Expressway. Or Union Station commuters can walk three blocks east to catch the downtown Loop Elevated. This walk is even worse six months a year when Chicago is either brutally cold or hot ‘n humid. For passengers walking to rapid transit with baggage, there is no credible way to say “Thanks for visiting” or “Welcome home.”

Telling the tale of the times that caused today’s divorce from rapid transit, Union Station had its own “L” (Elevated) stop per the 1957 photo above (Bruce Moffat Collection.) The Loop connection starts on the right, crosses the river and train-shed with the “L” stop in the parking lot. (Across the street, the existing Great Hall is in the middle of the 8 story office block with the original concourse to its right.) This neat track connecting to the CBD was demolished in 1958 to clear the block next to what would be the world’s tallest building for over two decades.

Despite the huge increase in commuters who needed to circulate during three decades of the downtown’s redevelopment boom, Chicago never replaced the “L” station and kept Union Station disconnected from rapid transit.

When considering that Union Station ridership would rank it as the 10th busiest American airport, we need to ask how many airports that large have inadequate rapid service. Since Chicago’s airports have had almost constant and continuing public investment for the past sixty years, the City’s investment priorities can only be felt as a protracted slap to two-thirds of downtown’s daily rail riders who have made Chicago’s economy work and probably contribute more than their fair share of taxes.

Union Station’s growth mostly was based on easier transfers and the high opinions of its 1922 Concourse (above shown serving the war effort.) The Concourse evoked New York’s exquisite 1903 Penn Station; yet both met mid-Century mistakes. Chicago’s concourse was demolished in 1969. Developers of the Concourse’s substitute and its high-rise office towers got their deals; but no agency got passengers a deal that respected the visual glory and artful functionality of their former Concourse.

The 1970s design of the concourse’s substitute was so bad that an extensive $23 million renovation in 1992 (by a European star-architect) could not conceal the dirt that had been done: Chicago’s former train “cathedral” had been scrunched under an office tower. Today’s concourse is little more than a passenger pipeline dressed-up as a fast-food mall. I have been jostled through the concourse during several rush hours and I still find it confusing and claustrophobic. I’m still looking for a fellow traveler whose eyes do not seem glazed over. Seeming to reflect my feelings about leaving the concourse, the photo below is borrowed from the 2012 CDOT Plan referenced below.

Municipal failure for an over-crowded concourse gets worse as rush hour passengers next are dumped into a street-level melee as they try to cross the river or Canal Street. This frequently looks like the breakdown of civil rules. Taxis, cars, busses compete for space that doesn’t exist; so they feel justified stopping in or racing through crosswalks. To avoid over-crowded sidewalks and crossings, pedestrians also get crazy; often jay-walking Canal Street and inventing new ways to defy common sense.

Overall, this break-down of order converts an otherwise safe train commute into a hot zone endangering public safety once it encounters the street.

Seeking to explain this failure in the primary job of government, I recall the field of mathematics that says human behavior is unpredictable when systems are at capacity. This Chaos Theory says things can go wrong spontaneously. The streets outside Union Station — at almost any daylight hour — proves to me the value of this Theory.

As a final sign of system disintegration, only slow, noxious diesel buses directly serve a station with 125,000 daily weekday passengers, the nation’s third largest. Since only 11% of METRA riders get on a CTA bus, it has obvious limits. Those who choose to walk get a type of gallows satisfaction because the pedestrians often move faster than fellow commuters packed into a rush hour bus.

To sum their personal experiences, transit commuters are doing the Right Thing and deserve much better. At the least, a decent deal would reward commuters with enough convenience to encourage more good behavior.

Reflecting further government failure, Union Station’s owner (Amtrak) does not grasp the collaboration of 125 years ago that led to Chicago’s growth. The Station’s largest tenant (METRA) has so many scandals it is unlikely to survive the recommendations of the blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Governor. The same goes for the Regional Transportation “Authority.” Its four decades of failed oversight has allowed system dis-integration and agency waste of public funds. And Chicago’s Transit Authority carries baggage of recurring fiscal failures and two decades of deferred maintenance.

Recognizing the uselessness of transit’s major operators, Mayor Emanuel has put in-charge Chicago’s Department of Transportation. CDOT capped off 12 years of downtown planning with its May 2012 “Union Station Master Plan.” While not as forthright as my analysis (and certainly not written in my style), The Plan is candid for a government document; which I see as a sign of hope.

After wasting a decade of grand planning when the City had some cash, The 2012 Plan is practical… now that Chicago is flat broke. The Plan details improvements today, most of which are probably affordable. And it inspires some hope that its 5 to 10 year goals of realigning and widening Station platforms will help overcome crowding and, maybe, make more probable the benefits of through-routing. But… no funding, as yet.

Finally, the Plan clearly knows a new station is required and repeats the long-term vision of an integrated West Loop Transportation Center (imagined above) that, rich in irony, could be built over the concourse demolished in 1969. The Plan also analyzes an alternate Center one block west and stretching two blocks north to the updated Ogilvie Transportation Center; thus making the economic benefits of through-routing theoretically possible for 8 of Chicagoland’s 12 lines. With commuter travel predicted to increase between 25% and 40% within two decades, this Center offers hope that Chicago transit could enter a sustainable era… hopefully closer to on-time.

With history as judge, planning promises will not overcome the reality that governments are poorly aligned and, thus, are unlikely to spend tax dollars intelligently. But this dismal Big Picture gets more hopeful when we consider CDOT’s first small step to rebuild connectivity with a Loop Bus Rapid Transit. We hope BRT, sometime in 2015, will serve Chicago’s largest downtown buildings and reconnect the largest three commuter stations with the CTA’s rapid rail.

There are reasons to side with skeptics saying that this BRT is not a suitable solution; particularly if this City continues to tout itself as a global hub while only able to implement BRT, a technology used by developing economies. But, BRT is all Chicago can afford; having lost taxpayer support by treating its transit customers for decades as second class.

How Do We Convert Dis-integration Into Sustainable Integration?

Even for someone who enjoys writing about the future, I’ve just made a tough ask here. But starting relative to today’s transportation agency dis-integration, the positives are that the Loop BRT can meet a very low standard and still be considered a success. Yet, BRT will not renew Chicagoans’ transit greatness as long as Union Station is stuck behind the times.

Chicago’s boosters cannot mask much longer their inadequate downtown transit. This will lose the city its status as a global hub. While Public-Private Partnerships are floated to fund the low-hanging fruit, use of PPPs sufficient to make a new transit center will require reducing private risk with public funds. Politicians can pretend different and commuters can hope and pray (and buy lottery tickets), but anyone serious about transit must deal with reality: that public funds are the missing ingredient in updating Union Station and its transit network for the 21st Century.

Obstacle: taxpayers have made it implicitly clear that they have lost faith in the current transportation regime fed mostly by sales taxes; having supported the regime, only to have it fail at maintaining itself in good working order… METRA disgracefully so.

I boil down this analysis to the key strategic challenge of re-integration and how Chicagoans are likely to judge future investments: did their money for the West Loop Center replace non-integrated rapid and commuter rail with integrated systems that contribute to the economic and fiscal balance that the City needs to compete globally?

Any future strategy will not work if decision-making authority still resides with agencies proven to avoid problems and whose directors are appointed by politicians who have not admitted past mistakes, nor promised to correct them.

To get on track, Chicagoans must radically restructure bankrupt agencies; and probably start anew. To raise the funds to break beyond BRT, I advocate raising public capital and investing it through an independent publicly-elected Infrastructure Board. (Watch future posts for that proposal, separate from this series on stations.) This Board will be dedicated to increasing rail travel and protect future public investment by also serving as chief advocate for reducing the radical bias and subsidy to cars.

As guardian of taxpayers’ new infrastructure capital to integrate systems and increase commuter convenience, this dual-dedicated Board could help re-organize transportation providers into a sustainable competitive collaboration and build a suitable West Loop Center. Another pipe-dream proposal? Hardly. Here is our lesson from history: collaboration twice (1883 and 1922) built stations that led Chicago’s prosperity. Both times, Chicago clearly had the ambition to be ahead of its time. Does it now?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Philadelphia Center City Stations by Robert Munson

Philadelphia Market East Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/acetonic

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

In the series introduction, I divided America’s stations into four categories based on how they are evolving to sustainability. The first was “The Likely Sustainables.” While most cities have plans to reutilize their central station, these cities are doing it best. These stations serve compact cities and are using these economic advantages to help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability over time.

How we define “fiscal sustainability” ultimately depends on taxpayers; since it is their subsidy that makes it possible for the systems to run. But for the purposes of this series on train stations, fiscal sustainability means that a particular central station has led its transit system on to a path that can reverse the four decade trend of rails requiring ever more public subsidy.

According to this series’ current scorecards and analyses, there are five to seven stations in this category and most will be described during the balance of 2013. For today, The Sustainables are represented in this post by an analysis of how through-routing connects Philadelphia’s three downtown stations.

Philadelphia’s Through-routing Triumvirate: 30th Street (Penn), Suburban & Market East Stations Help To Approach Europe’s Standard For Commuters

Score: 84 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainable

Summary: For transit towns struggling to improve their network, Philadelphia teaches them that through-routing helps make most things better. Connecting the legacy lines of Philly’s two main commuter rail companies has increased ridership and helped improve downtown real estate. If boosters of other cities cry “unfair advantage” because Philly gets evaluated with three connected stations instead of just one, my response is: connectivity is the key to sustainable stations and its subtleties create special rewards.

What Transit Is Supposed To Create: The Synergy of Passenger Convenience and Higher Real Estate Values

Three commuter rail stations connected by the dashed horizontal black line that runs one block above the main subway, the blue line.

A useful theory to test is whether Philly’s transit innovation has been fostered by good urban bones. Starting with the 18th Century walkable grid laid out by William Penn, this narrow land between two rivers — called Center City — prospered using boats, the young nation’s first mode of transportation.

The grid also helped the next mode as it helped Philly develop more densely around rail stations. Eager to spread this new mode to outlying areas, Center City annexed the rest of Philadelphia County before the Civil War. Philly’s foresight gave it a three decade lead before annexation sprees in New York and Chicago caught up. Also, Philly’s suburban rail consolidation seems pioneering: with the Pennsylvania RR (Pennsy) and its rival Reading RR overtaking their competitors before other cities’ rails did. With only two spheres to consolidate in the 1980s, SEPTA’s takeover emerged better.

But Philly’s lead truly widened with the first through-routing of a major U.S. metropolitan commuter system. In October 1984, the Center City Connection opened, a commuter tunnel connecting the Reading stub terminal to the Pennsy system. Simultaneously, the new system converted from dirty diesel to quiet electric, though at the loss of some diesel lines. As recognition of this strategic investment, The American Society of Civil Engineers could barely wait for early results and, in 1985, gave this tunnel its top infrastructure award.

Since making this investment to integrate into one system, the tunnel’s impact clearly is positive. Center City’s residential population has grown by over 50%: making it the third most populous downtown in the U.S. (Most residential is not shown on the model below because it is on the left of this westward view of the model.) Also, Center City employment numbers have rebounded and compete better with suburban job creation.

This model looking straight up Philly’s transit corridor shows centuries of integrated planning. From Market East station in the middle foreground (next to SEPTA’s red-blue logo); then carry your eye up the street to the next logo (on Love Park in front of Suburban Station); then cross the river to the monumental 30th Street Station. Completing this tight transit corridor, the main street running just to the left is Market and has street cars and a subway.

And what are the economics of this corridor?

Philadelphia Suburban Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/ireneillee

Real estate values around Suburban terminal have improved consistently since it became a through station. Tied together with underground passages to the station, there are 11 buildings of Penn Center, plus Comcast Center. Together, they average 33 stories. Since the 1980s, 86 stories have been fully renovated equalling those un-renovated stories built in the 1960s (50 years is a normal life-cycle before a major renovation.) Over 164 stories have been built anew in Penn Center. In 2006, the redesign of the centerpiece Suburban Station was completed; improving HVAC, waiting areas, retail, passenger flow and the 20 commercial stories above (called 1 Penn Center)… all earning it an Energy Star rating.

Only one-half mile from Suburban Station (but a world away from office work), the former Reading Terminal has been redeveloped as the main Exhibition Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A touristy, mid-scale mall of almost 120 stores, called The Gallery, adjoins the new Market East Station at the end of the commuter tunnel.

After suffering decades of disinvestment, this area also has benefitted greatly from the 1984 through-routing. The Convention Center successfully got through most of its second phase expansion despite a deep real estate recession. The Gallery has stabilized through the upheavals in retail anchors and the station’s overall success has given Amtrak reason to consider it as its preferred stop for high-speed rail.

Making greater passenger convenience, the Commuter Tunnel integrates the former Reading (5 lines) and Pennsy (8 lines) to bring customers directly to each others’ stations without the hassle and cost of transferring. Through-routing clearly contributes to sustainable downtown redevelopment around these three stations.

Rounding-out the trio… One mile west of Suburban is the model of how to honor rail’s past and invent the future. Unlike many other cities, Philly kept its jewel, Penn Station. Finished in 1933 by Burnham’s successor firm, Penn Station’s grand neoclassical exterior blends well with an exquisite art moderne interior with aesthetics reflecting Philly’s transit innovations. Owned by Amtrak, it was renamed as 30th Street Station. But its owner has kept every bit of the original grandeur; making it a joy to visit and even relax.

Philadelphia 30th St. Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/afagen

As grand and gorgeous as this station is, real estate redevelopment along the Center City mile between 30th and Suburban stations has improved dramatically since through-routing. Looking on this model from 30th Street towards the CBD, south of the tracks now has 60% more floor space than 30 years ago and nearly all of it is updated or new. North of the tracks, more than half of the buildings have been renovated. An urban wasteland also has been transformed on 30th Street side of the river. The sleek, glass tower to the Station’s right (in the photo) is The Cira Centre — also designed by a star architect’s firm (albeit 100 years later than Burnham). The 29 story tower now serves as commercial anchor to the area; built above an ugly railyard that many earlier proposals had failed to conquer. A more sprawled anchor is nearby University City; hosting campuses for Drexel and Pennsylvania universities and Philly’s largest medical center. This area was in particularly bad shape thirty years ago.

Fit all this into the big picture and Philly is relatively more transit-friendly than its larger rival, Chicago, which has similar per capita transit usage but no commuter through-routing.

Suburban Station borders Love Park, where young and old lovers come to encourage their relationship and be photographed under the iconic LOVE sign. Since Suburban is has the greatest traffic, the Park also has a Visitor Center that looks up the diagonal of the Ben Franklin Pedestrian Mall and museum campus; somehow capturing urbanity’s best. As I walked through at lunch hour, a rapper in the Visitor Center bandshell was singing about his struggles with and love for his father. When I absorbed all this and entered the best commuter station I have ever seen, the uplift was too multiple and I wiped my watery eye.

How Philly’s Transit Could Improve: Reinvent SEPTA; Find New Funding

I agree with Aaron Renn’s 2012 post: “Philly’s commuter system has the greatest potential in the US to create a system on a par with the European standard; without major investments.”

SEPTA has been better than most region’s agencies at integrating commuter rail well with subway, light rail and busses. SEPTA even has revived trolley lines. A key example for the entire system is these modes integrate tightly within a block of these three stations.

Despite accolades from me and others, SEPTA still can improve on the road to fiscal sustainability by increasing ridership and lowering costs. Criticized in this “Transport Politic” post, SEPTA is not doing the simple, inexpensive innovations such as clearer map and signage that highlights the advantages of through-service. Also in SEPTA’s takeover from Reading and Pennsy over three decades ago, a bruising strike derailed an opportunity to bring commuter-rail up to rapid-transit labor efficiency standards. Instead, SEPTA has adjusted to fiscal realties by reducing services; and in other ways, doing little to contain the cost side of the equation.

As for Philly’s future transit improvements, refer to this “TP” post. While the proposed innovations focus on Center City and giving the public the most bang-for-their-bucks, some proposals seem suitable as Public-Private Partnerships. But PPPs still will require new public dollars. As a funding innovation, targeted special transit assessments in Center City might be worth a try for specific projects that show quick results.

I conclude with a telling anecdote about how SEPTA runs an integrated system and has flattened the rail hierarchy. At 30th Street Station, I was told to use my Amtrak ticket to get to the other two downtown hubs. After I expressed amazement that one rail system would not take advantage of an opportunity to collect again, the suburban conductor clued me in on a key to SEPTA’s success: “You have come into our system and our job is to get you where you need to go.”

I was so simultaneously startled and refreshed, I had to take a deep breath to recover before I could say to the conductor “Thank you.”

Photo Credit: Flickr/ddyates

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? by Robert Munson

[ Today and Tuesday I'm kicking off a series by Robert Munson that reviews North America's train stations. Entries will be posted periodically as Robert writes them. Today is the set up followed by Philadelphia, and many more analyses that should surely get people arguing - Aaron.]

Before cities waste more time and money fumbling, let’s first describe how train stations should serve the 21st Century.

Which of these encourages you to travel by train? New York’s former Penn Station was cathedral-like, an elegant concourse and suitable setting for life-long memories. Above, witness today’s concourse; so over-crowded you feel as if you could be trapped in a pen and cannot get out.

Symbolizing how America would lead in the 20th Century, Penn Station outdid Europe’s best. Then sixty years later, Penn Station became a metaphor for American transportation mistakes. In 1964, short-term economics demolished it. Ever since, the substitute has aggravated New Yorkers daily. They repeatedly have planned to make another station worthy of the world’s greatest metropolis. But, these civic campaigns lurch from one unnecessary obstacle to the next as the entropy of our government demoralizes all but the most stout of heart.


This series will shows how economics and politics can merge to make central stations into centerpieces of sustainable transit in major North American cities.

Of course, we have to start with the politics we’ve got. This is not encouraging… at least on the surface. But despite today’s low points, we should recall how civic movements preserved stations nationwide. Fearing Penn-like debacles in hometowns across America, stout hearts now have preserved 32% of Amtrak stations by putting them on the National Register of Historic Places. This great success repurposed many rail stations as community institutions. While many are barely kept alive as reminders of the prospering people we used to be, many stations today also could help our nation benefit from good transportation economics again. Stations should signal our national intent, much as they did early in the 20th Century; called by some as the American Century.

But, face the facts: our politics restrain the benefits of transit. Civic efforts to save a building are no match to change the outdated transportation agencies we keep alive despite their strategic failures to serve citizens, businesses and taxpayers alike. In analyzing Penn Station, we see its biggest flaw is faulty governance. This series explores how this problem is common to other cities and, then, prescribes how each locale can redevelop its station into its centerpiece for sustainable transit.

Today’s flurry of plans to improve central stations are either insufficient for the future or, worse, will repeat past failures. If efforts in transit towns such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are fumbling, then car-dominated cities have a slimmer chance of success. But, their chances improve when they take steps — even modest ones — to remake the rules for land use and transportation so transit systems can compete on a level playing field with the car.

What Makes A Station Sustainable?

In this series, I review several central stations in North America to start defining a sustainability for transit that goes beyond helping the environment – one that also aids economic growth and helps achieve fiscal balance. In addition to a narrative, the analysis of each station details a scorecard that I adapted from an article titled “History and Prospects of the Rail Station” by Chris Hale from the February 2013 “Journal of Urbanism.” My adaptation is structured on Professor Hale’s three integrating principles; although the most heavily weighted principle also borrows from the concluding lessons of the seminal book The Transit Metropolis.

For “Functionality & Flow”, 18 of 100 points can be awarded for two internal station criterion: platform protection, safety and passenger flow; and secondly, concourse flow to shops and exits, or waiting areas … and, generally, trying to make the station somewhat pleasant amidst the rush hour crush of humanity.

For “Effective Connection”, 32 points can be awarded. This includes good design such as how welcoming entrances are. But over half these points are given for efficient transfers with buses, light rail, metro, taxis and cars. Bike facilities are nice. (To disclose my biases, surface lots are not nice and get zero points.)

For “Station Synergies”, 50 points can be awarded for a variety of criteria including vision, leadership, proximity and integration to pedestrian sheds of the CBD, transit agency competence, station business strategy, integrating transit cards, reasonable transfer fees, and trying to level the rules by correcting the underpricing of automobile travel.

If you’d like to see the detailed scorecard, here is one as completed for Philadelphia.

Station Categories

To organize the individuality of America’s diverse train stations and learn the similarities in their evolution toward sustainability, I propose four main categories. After the below introductory paragraphs, each category will have an example analyzed in a subsequent article that will be accompanied by its detailed scorecard.

A. The Likely Sustainables. While most cities plan to reutilize their central station, these places are actually doing it well. These stations serve compact cities and these economic advantages will help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability in, let’s be realistic, the next two decades. Example: Philadelphia’s Center City stations.

B. The In-Excusables. Some stations should be leaders in Category A, but they have a fatal flaw. While serving relatively good transit metropolises (by American standards), these stations have one obstacle (often lousy politics) that blocks them from fiscal sustainability. Example: Chicago Union Station.

C. The Economic Engines. These stations are leading their systems to boost downtown economic growth; but, they must overcome long-term obstacles before their transit systems can get on a path of fiscal sustainability. These are usually neighborhood problems such as poverty. These regions (or often sub-regions) have long-term plans to coordinate their land use and mobility practices, but realistically they lack the tax revenue to attract private capital on good terms for the public. So if economic growth generates greater farebox revenue (instead of more cars), then this creates capital for public investment. Example: Newark Penn Station.

D. The Environmentals Only. These stations are not expected to do more than help their region meet federal clean air standards, a low standard for environmental sustainability. To reach higher levels of sustainability, these stations need another path because two strategic obstacles block them. First, Category D stations usually have a very small chance of contributing significantly to their sub-region’s economic growth; basically, too few people use transit to reap real economic benefits. Second, Category D stations have virtually no chance of leading their transit systems to fiscal sustainability; typically because there is too much sprawl and too much subsidy for autos and too little political will to change any of this. These stations appear to constitute about half of the 50 noteworthy stations being considered for this project. Because that is such a large number and because they are mostly Sunbelt cities that I have not studied in sufficient depth, these will be covered in the future.

Why Analyze Stations? Because They Symbolize The Public’s Deal For Transportation

The Golden Era of rails created many of America’s most inspired civic buildings; symbolizing the public-private partnerships that built the key transportation technology of the world’s leading manufacturing economy. Their deal was simple: Uncle Sam gives corporations the land to build the world’s best railroads to move the materials and people. The deal stuck: we became history’s fastest prospering nation. That smartly-incentivized deal trumpeted its success by building the last generation of great stations, most designed between 1905 and 1929.

That partnership crashed into the Great Depression. Think of its replacement as the New Deal. Passenger rails and their stations were not included as this mid-Century deal evolved in the 1950s to foster a consumer economy that heavily sold cars. Our car culture is still fervently loved by Middle America.

Today’s efforts to revitalize stations are stumbling badly and costing more than we seem to have. To succeed, efforts must be accompanied with new rules for a deal that allow stations and transit to serve as tools to promote economic growth for households and communities.

Clearly, the rules for a 21st Century transportation deal will be far more complex. Unlike the 19th Century, the land already has been given away. Nor can today’s governments who are perpetuating the car culture be trusted to institute new transit taxes. Nor should we trust them; having become broke and, now, probably lost the consent of the governed… or, at least for now, taxpayers.

Because stations can serve as symbols for transit to help supplant the auto addiction, redeveloping stations are important testing grounds for transportation’s 21st Century deal. How stations evolve and get applied to individual cities and metropolises certainly makes for interesting challenges. But developed well and using inspired placemaking, these stations might even win back enough of that love from America’s middle class.

Use Analysis To Overcome Obstacles Strategically

To varying degrees, most stations reviewed in this series have a common obstacle: the experience outside of the rail car is, let’s say, uninviting. There is no need to repeat here the litany of how the bankruptcy of commuter service and Amtrak’s lack of imagination has reduced rail station quality to sad, low levels over the last five decades.

However, there is a Simple Solution: Design stations so they are great places.

But, here’s the rub: we cannot afford the greatness of Grand Central anymore. Yet, each station can still be great for their town by contributing to its economic growth. To get beyond pretty places, our notion of Sustainable Design must prove how stations and transit serve Americans better than cars. Since cars are fast becoming unaffordable to more and more households and cities, transit advocates have our key economic opportunity to leverage.

Elevating stations as a priority results only when public and private investment increases in the central station, its network and their surrounds. This goal must out-smart the persisting tendency for city centers to move from stations and toward non-transit suburbs. While there are many causes, most relate to government’s outdated laws discouraging real estate entrepreneurs from arresting decline by using the economic advantages of compact redevelopment near transit.

My proposal for more Sustainable Stations is a synthesized consensus more than it is anything new: compact and mixed developments multiply the types, times and volume of passengers that use the station’s network. While “Urbanophile” readers and planners largely agree that Transit Oriented Development is necessary, doing it sufficiently cannot happen when governments are broke and our laws remain lousy… or, at least, our institutions still work against redevelopment.

When not on its track to sustainability, each city needs to develop new leverage — its specific deals — to make transit into a priority that can start to supplant our costly dependency on cars.

Having achieved its goal of saving stations but not achieving their economic viability in many cities, the national movement to save stations can use this series to re-strategize its participation in helping create vibrant central stations that maximize the growth of its surrounds and transportation networks. Preservationists can integrate more fully with the broader civic movement that needs to advocate for and protect the huge public investment needed to update transit and put it on paths to fiscal sustainability.

In developing this paradigm, the next article will introduce you to “The Sustainables” by analyzing one of North America’s great success stories: how through-routing has helped Philadelphia use transit significantly better.

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Chicago: The Daley Deals by Robert Munson

Politics + Projects = Planning……And The Deal Beyond Daley

Chicago has trouble beating its rap portrayed in the popular media these days. So do the Daleys. Three books give a balanced description of what The Daley Years got done, focusing on the son’s service as Mayor from 1989 to 2011. By reviewing these books in context, this essay suggests that two key tasks in completing Chicago’s transformation — revitalized poorer neighborhoods and improved transit — requires sacrifice from taxpayers and a new deal.

Richard M. Daley was raised in a bungalow. Historians theorize his father intentionally choose this home to evoke Chicago’s Bungalow Belt, that all-encompassing crescent (in red above) stretching just outside the city’s early industrial neighborhoods; protecting contiguously from the city’s south shore through diverse western neighborhoods to the edge of the northern suburbs. Built in the teens and Roaring Twenties, the Bungalow Belt almost filled the city to its limits; as if to say how Chicago would be a city of separate neighborhoods. It serves as one of Chicago’s richer metaphors; ranging from a simple haven protecting families from the daily grind and reaching up to the Big Picture representing The American Dream.

This Belt reveals how most manufacturing-based cities built their second generation residential neighborhoods; segregating filthy factories from the homes that are the primary reward for working in those factories. The story of these cities’ neighborhoods span a century: from their rapid growth ending abruptly in the Great Depression and followed by decades of decline. Some of these neighborhoods participated sketchily in the recent urban resurgence that ended in today’s lingering real estate depression.

As the weakest link, Chicago’s Bungalow Belt is a focus of future challenges and we will return to it at key points in this essay.

While interpreting the importance of these three books and drawing analogies to your city, I suggest a city’s size is less important than the patterns of how politics guide projects and how they come to resemble long-range plans…if we do things right. Since Chicago partially completed some long-range plans, other cities also get take-aways from these books.


First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley
by Keith Koeneman
University of Chicago Press, April 2013

The first biography on Chicago’s recently retired mayor of 22 years, “First Son” is an important book for two related reasons. First, Daley’s positive impact on American cities will become clearer as historians such as Koeneman assess his legacy in balance. Chicago’s media trivialized Daley’s reign; neglecting to explain sufficiently how the city improved and the tough choices a mayor must make. Also beyond mass media, historians will sort out how much of Chicago’s progress resulted from the market redeveloping undervalued land and how much came from Daley’s strong will.

Chicago’s storyline changes starting with this book. Now, historians will build upon “First Son” and explain how Richard M. Daley surpassed even what boosters hoped for when he became mayor in 1989. He was the central force in reversing rapid decline in the nation’s largest manufacturing center and converting it into a global city. He started by righting government in the wake of bitter racial battles and attacked policy failures in housing and education. After cleaning those stables, other feats prepared Chicago for the new century; showing there was life after post-industrial calamity.

When someone such as Daley exceeds where many other mayors have fallen short, urbanists should understand why. This first biography helps give us perspective that other histories will develop further: Daley’s impact on other cities and national politics. My top example lists Daley as one of the most notable Democratic politicians to grapple with what I call a “taxpayers’ silent rebellion.” Daley repeatedly stated that taxpayers wouldn’t pay more and his goal almost daily sought to improve efficiencies so taxpayers got better value. Also sketching the Big Picture of the nation’s evolution, historians will notate how Daley’s advisors became the President’s and started a federal urban policy more suited to what I call the “sustainable century.”

The second and corollary importance of this book is its impressive details that break down the superficial image that Daley was all-powerful and replaces it with the chaotic crazy-quilt of uncooperative demands that are driving Chicago — and most cities — into insolvency. While reading through this book’s array of political intrigue, I am amazed that Daley achieved what he did.

This book confirms for me that local government does not have the integrity or tools to lead a broad-based revitalization that includes cities’ bungalow-like belts. Given the complexities and institutional intransigence that we allow to infect our local governments, cities currently cannot evolve to their potential.

Hence… urbanism’s potential also is undercut if it does not help reform and simplify governments for sustainability.

Beyond the scope of this book (but hopefully not beyond the next history written), broken governments best explains why Daley did not get some things done. Having spent his authority on politics’ myriad conflicts without achieving reform, Daley could not cure the City’s fiscal condition.

My take-away from “First Son” reinforces what I’ve said in other pieces for “The Urbanophile”: Rahm’s campaign promise for fiscal sustainability only overcomes intractable insolvency if we return to the populist truth: “everyone does better when everyone does better.” Only when citizens believe they have a chance to more forward, will they pay higher taxes and, then, the City can pay its bills and meet obligations. While Daley’s service is an overall triumph, the inability to reform antiquated politics left Chicago peering at a potentially tragic precipice.

+ Projects

Chicago From The Sky
by Lawrence Okrent
Chicago’s Books Press, 2012

If you want to see Chicago just before Richard M. Daley came to office and compare it to when he left… if you need to jog your memory about how land use evolves… if you want to see better how Chicago’s transformation has lessons elsewhere… or if the seemingly endless tedium and timeframes for redeveloping real estate needs the visual inspiration that the end result is really worth the headaches… then, you have found your book. And all that, at 49 bucks, is a deal.

As a planner and real estate consultant, the author took 200+ photo flights over Chicago between 1985 to 2010. Sorting through some 25,000 of his photos and evaluating some 3,000 postcards and the photos of others, the author organizes an excellent exhibition. Selecting before-and-after photos usually with the same angle, this urban evolution is easier to track. Blending his planner’s training and his interest in architecture, the author’s informative captions complete the significance of the selected photos. Best yet, the author maintains objectivity; not letting his love for Chicago interfere with showing redevelopment’s rocky road.

Because the most dramatic changes were in Chicago’s downtown, this book is thorough and devotes 100 pages to the transformation of the nation’s manufacturing HQ center into a global center. An additional 78 pages show the less dramatic changes — though still substantial — in several Chicago neighborhoods. However, most photos portray projects of government, universities, museums, hospitals or cultural institutions. Some 15 of these 78 pages show neighborhoods of mostly new construction; most of which are repurposed from old warehouse districts or freight yards or the horrible mistakes of mid-Century public housing. Note that these areas are pre-Roaring Twenties and are inside the Bungalow Belt.

Several reasons suggest why this book is weighted toward large corporations and institutions that do large projects: they are easily photographed from an airplane; many are clients of the author; and, most important, it was easier for the Daley Administration to do big deals because that is how government is tooled; unlike when small entrepreneurs built the Bungalow Belt.

Tellingly of its 242 pages of photos, “Above Chicago” offers only a baker’s dozen photos of the Bungalow Belt. In direct contrast to the new construction in repurposed inner city areas, photos of the Belt show small scatterings of new construction that are mostly limited to thoroughfares on Chicago’s predominantly white north side. Of course, no book can take us from the bird’s eye view to traveling the streets of Chicago’s long-suffering neighborhoods on the west and south sides. But, those streets tell us that Chicago’s dramatic transformation is not complete. Our next book helps us understand why this matters and, partly, why these neighborhoods got left behind.

= Planning

Planning Chicago
by D. Bradford Hunt and Jon DeVries
Planners Press, 2013

Here is what this book helped me synthesize: Richard J. Daley was a master planner; and 45 years after Chicago’s last Comprehensive Plan in 1966, his son had done enough deals that the old man’s plans, roughly, got done. I consider this one of the great team efforts in the constant struggle to remake cities for the new era.

“Planning Chicago” details the evolution of planning in Chicago from the creation of the Department of City Planning in 1957 and describes several decades of key decisions. All types of planning activities are reviewed including central area plans, neighborhood initiatives, city industrial policies, and transportation. The narrative is accompanied by over 100 graphics including maps, plans, and photos.

For these and other reasons, this book deserves a review by itself. It is so rich in its detail and so broad in its critique of Chicago’s planning and the implications of its prescriptions run so deep, I regret only having space to summarize three key points that feed this essay’s bottom lines.

1. Incomplete Redevelopment Has Consequences: A Weak Tax Base. Reinforcing my conclusions from the previous two books, this third book rounds-out the analysis that the Daley-led redevelopment of Chicago is not complete. This book distinguishes clearly between how Daley made the downtown look good (Millennium Park, streets with more planters and trees) and that the consequences of superficiality show up elsewhere… and often.

Look at the chapter on “The Lost Decade” and its analysis of Chicago’s weak 21st Century economic statistics; of which population and job losses are prominent. While downtown deals make great photos, many neighborhoods and the city’s mass tax base often were neglected. Illustrating this growing weakness, page 270 shows income change during that first decade.

Note that most red/pink census tracts (where there were significant income losses) and the gray tracts (no significant change) dominate the Bungalow Belt. (Compare to the adjacent red rendition of the Bungalow Belt if you wish a tighter correlation.) While all the significant income increases (green) are achievements due Daley’s leadership, these neighborhoods are unlikely to pay the tax and fee increases required to close the huge holes in the City’s budget.

As its multi-benefit, redevelopment reduces both social costs to citizens and social service expenses in the City budget. This book understands practical value, transcending the intractable argument between downtown boosters and neighborhood equity advocates.

Bottom-line: redevelopment must build a broader tax base and reduce social costs.

2. TIFs Have Consequences: Weak Strategic Action. This book’s chief criticism is Chicago slipped into ad-hoc planning. The most obvious example is the proliferation of 151 TIF districts. While well-intentioned to solve needs of individual neighborhoods, aldermanic privilege for zoning changes has given 50 alderman leverage to demand TIF deals that often do not support citywide strategies.

TIFs are now the City’s primary source of capital spending. Untested during a period of depressed real estate values, TIFs are too many eggs in an unproven basket. And not only do TIFs have a limited future to help redevelopment, they undermine the public’s faith in government since these public dollars are invested with minimal public discussion to maximize public return. While the Emanuel Administration is working on this: decisions largely are still made between the Mayor’s Office, the Alderman and the developer… with half of the money going to the private sector…. with at least some of that going back to boost reelection campaigns.

Bottom-line: citizens and taxpayers need an alternative to TIFs.

3. Debt Has Consequences: Broke Until A New Deal. The book also illustrates that the average debt per Chicagoan grew from $600 in 1991 to $2600 in 2011, or an increase of 433% in actual dollars. Servicing that debt now eats up almost 25% of the city’s budget. Fiscally unsustainable; but worse, taxpayers have to pay this debt and they won’t because they are fed up.

Bottom-line: This debt won’t be paid and government will not give taxpayers good value unless leaders produce a justification for taxpayers to invest in the future.

As convincing as this book’s argument is for Chicago to update its planning practice significantly so it can allocate limited resources better for the 21st Century, the book leaves its technical vein and addresses the clogged artery by concluding that solutions ultimately are a question of political will. Since we are responsible for this democratic semblance of government, I only can agree.

Beyond The Daley Deals: A Conclusion And A Beginning

Speaking above citizen complaints, all three books indicate that Daley left Chicago in a substantially better space than where it was headed in 1989. Yet, clearly much remains before completing this transformation. Global centers have better transit. Nor can global centers be sustained successfully if 20% of the city’s neighborhoods are poverty traps and their social problems prevent the city from balancing its books and meeting other obligations.

So for answers, let’s review when neighborhoods were balanced and people believed government would help them and when poverty was treated as an opportunity instead of a trap. Let’s symbolically return to that bungalow the first Daley built (pictured on below.)

By Dick Daley living in the predominant housing type of middle and unionized working class neighborhoods, it signaled to Chicagoans that the aspirant-to-be-mayor was one of them, he would work for them and their new social contract called the New Deal. The above bungalow at 3536 S. Lowe served as the most famous residence in the city for two decades. Then, the mayor died and Chicago entered free fall and, not coincidentally, Reagan unraveled the New Deal.

For background, Dominic Pacyga (a leading historian of Chicago neighborhoods) co-edited a book along with Charles Shanabruch, the Executive Director of the Chicago Bungalow Foundation, that was a lead participant in Rich Daley’s multi-program quest to save and update this housing type. Mr. Pacyga contributed a chapter entitled “Movin’ on Up: Chicago’s Bungalow Belt and The American Dream.” It, too, is worth a read.

As a masterful politician in his own right, Rich Daley knew the symbolism in governing with a social contract. But, he also learned in his last term how hard it is to govern well once that contract is broken. Without a deal, Daley knew that taxpayers would not step up. As such, city efficiencies and user fees were his best chance to keep Chicago solvent.

When those tactics failed and the City’s finances deteriorated into indelible red ink, much has been blamed on Daley… fairly or not. But, all would be better if Daley instead broke his mold and started his last great initiative by admitting: “We’re broke. And before taxpayers bailout the city, I promise these political reforms so that fiscal failure does not repeat.” Then, popular opinion — and certainly history — could give the praise he deserves for starting Chicago’s transformation.

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

SynergiCity: The Book, The Exhibit And The Prophets’ Road To Profits by Robert Munson

SynergiCity: Reinventing The Post-Industrial City
edited by Paul Hardin Kapp and Paul J. Armstrong
University of Illinois Press, 2012

Feeling as if I over-indulged in intellectual feasts, I have watched urbanists debate for a decade. They can produce a working consensus that claims the near-miracle of solving two abstract problems (often related to cities’ social and economic decline) with one repetitive effort (regeneration). But as these multi-benefits gain traction, a new problem pops up and… it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

So it is today. The post-industrial strategies sketched 40 years ago starting with sociologist Daniel Bell have been applied successfully mostly by urbanists. As a 21st Century update, SynergiCity proposes a helpful working consensus by synthesizing environmental and economic sustainability. In important ways, this book adds to the following three categories of proof that urbanism’s multi-benefits work… but each gets challenged by new pop-up problems.

One proof is physical: bricks and mortar, often the physical rehab of run-down neighborhoods. This book chronicles how redeveloping warehouse districts in six midwestern cities created the added benefit of attracting cool, young people who have been coined the “creative” workers and entrepreneurs of a dynamic, “innovation” economy… that now sputters badly because the old macro-economic cures (deficit spending and regulation) no longer work well.

This book also adds to the second group of proofs: these dense neighborhoods have multiple environmental benefits that will give long-lasting hope to… our new century’s protracted war against global warming and scary weather patterns.

“SynergiCity” adds to the third category of proof, real estate economics: revitalizing neighborhoods with certain formulas makes them such dynamic places to live, work, play and shop that their profits can be reinvested in nearby neighborhoods … up until the worst real estate depression of a lifetime struck.

Despite reality giving me a skeptical eye, I still could read this recent book and be filled with cautious hope for the new working consensus it offers. But as the reality of running cities encroaches on my happiness, I again wonder if the urbanist movement really can prove its permanence…. before I die.

If SynergiCity offers such a secret sauce that overcomes the real-world challenges thwarting urbanism’s intoxicating ideas, it would be truly gratifying. After all, consistent profitability greatly improves the chances the high values that we attach to cities would be aggressively replicated in buildings and blocks and communities and, eventually, crises could be resolved.

Permit me to ask the impolite question directly: Is the practice of urbanism proving its theory? This book answers specifically by showing how decayed districts were converted into prospering neighborhoods. The book is convincing, too. Read this book and you will feel much better about our chances of convincing stingy people who make financial decisions.

But in fairness, their decisions are based on whether a large enough market will support redevelopment. Thus, urbanism must prove itself by raising the quality of life for ever-larger numbers of people. Recognizing this more popular story also must be told, the editors of SynergiCity collaborated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to create an exhibit that — if you visit for 20 minutes — will help you feel-good, I hope, for a lifetime.

Dedicating a panel to one neighborhood each from Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Chicago, the exhibit shows how neglected warehouses were revitalized into destination districts; often mixing a few of the suitable older uses with new residential, office, and retail purposes including restaurants. The exhibit’s introduction and a partial closeup of the code describing each neighborhood’s mixing of uses is captured below.

Along with a two-panel condensation of the prototype study of Peoria in which the editors marshaled several teams of graduate students, the exhibit helps you see the patterns that led to successful redevelopment there and the other five cities. What the exhibit also captures is applied urbanism’s key: it brings out intrinsic value. If applied more widely than the exhibit’s premier examples, the process of turning neglected neighborhoods into productive purposes also could help cities survive today’s pop-up threats of mounting fiscal problems; discussed later in this review.

With the exhibit as backdrop, the CAF also organized a series of four lunchtime talks in April related to the exhibit. The first presentation came from the editors summarizing their synergicity concept. The second talk came from one of the book’s twelve essayists, John Norquist, retired mayor of Milwaukee and, now, President of the Congress for a New Urbanism. That city also offers many prominent examples in the book. The third looked at Chicago’s point-of-entry Pilsen neighborhood (also on-line). And the fourth, this Wednesday April 24, critiques Chicago’s current planning as performing below its reputation.

The Movement Has A Moment of AHA!

While these multi-media methods help package urbanism for broad understanding, the importance of SynergiCity is it deepens urbanism’s effectiveness by merging economics with environmental sustainability. While it is too early to know if a milestone has been made, SynergiCity, at least, constitutes two types of an AHA! First, it gives relief; telling urbanists they have economic proof as well. And secondly for optimists, SynergiCity indicates substantial progress in fitting a key piece in the puzzle of putting together cities for the 21st Century.

For me, this moment has both AHAs! With an improved handle on real estate economics, urbanism has a better discipline to grow to scale. Double bottom-line: SynergiCity tests the tools of urbanism and the results appear as urbanity.

The book’s two editors are architecture professors at The University of Illinois who understand how their craft, again, is thinking broadly about the building blocks that help cities operate to foster healthy social and economic systems. Also setting the Big Picture, the editors orchestrate the essayists so they collectively synthesize a working consensus about how regenerating older neighborhoods is an important microcosm to guide us as we struggle through the larger challenges posed by a new century that requires sustainability.

The book’s large stage is set with a Foreword from Richard Florida entitled “The Death and Life of Great Industrial Cities.” A review of the impressive list of essayists gives clues this may be a special book. It proved so to me. Here is how.

After the Foreword and Introduction, the editors and essay writers collaborate to describe SynergiCity as a dynamic progression through its Parts.

Part 1 sketches the broad social foundation for SynergiCity as a sustainable city suited to today’s dynamic, innovative economy. The first chapter — written by Donald Carter, one of urbanism’s lights — often uses Pittsburgh as the archetypical, transformed post-industrial city (and candidate to be dubbed the first synergicity.)

Four remaining chapters test urbanism’s tools for their capacity at physical and social transformation; focussing on the Illinois River town of Peoria. (Remember, “Will it play in Peoria?”). Also using other mostly midwestern examples, we see how transforming warehouse districts starts with preservation as a physical and economic strategy. Described well are the situational use of form-based zoning and other tools of the sustainable planner’s toolkit. Part 1 provides detailed proof that the theories work reliably enough to adapt elsewhere.

This Part’s concluding chapter was written by John Norquist, Milwaukee’s mayor for 16 years until 2004. His book published in 1998, The Wealth of Cities, still serves me as a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong; cogently describing how municipal and federal policy drove cities down. Mr. Norquist’s book also can be viewed as starting the case we today hear almost daily and SynergiCity supports: cities are the engine of the new economy. As I offer at the end of this review, failed policy and broken politics block us from this more dynamic, synergy city leading a sustainable economy.

Skirting the pop-up problem of politics and policy, Part 2 offers urbanism’s case for environmental sustainability. Because it serves mostly to reinforce what we already have had the chance to read in urban blogs, Part 2’s great value is seeing those ideas synthesized with today’s more dynamic economy.

Part 3, “Making SynergiCity A Reality,” organizes the tools of development economics with a chapter each on strategies (Milwaukee’s town-gown model), efficient methods (how Peoria got lots done without too much) and even descriptive ‘pro formas’ (financial analysis from Emil Malizia, a dean of urban redevelopment.) While all this may be covered sufficiently in the industry’s continuing education, Part 3 offers a novel package because it flows logically from urbanism’s wholistic power of transformation (Part 1) and its tightening case for environmental sustainability (Part 2.)

In brief, SynergiCity is comprehensive and tight: it shows how converting undervalued buildings reintegrates urbanism’s multi-benefits to create more sustainable communities that stimulate the emerging “innovation economy.” AHA! The post-industrial society is reinterpreted anew for sustainability!

Synergicity, So What?

While I suggest no criticism of SynergiCity, we cannot ignore urbanism’s new fatal flaw… many cities are insolvent (particularly in my state, Illinois.) Since their terrible condition only recently was revealed by more honest accounting standards, cities quite suddenly cannot provide the promised services to citizens and benefits to employees. Now amidst unyielding political confusion and fights over shrinking budgets, labor and social contracts must be remade.

Until citizens, taxpayers and employees get revised contracts they can live with, cities will bear badly the burdens caused by a two decade backlog to maintain existing infrastructure (mostly transportation and water.) Worse, attracting capital for new stuff seems very problematic; whether it is getting a decent deal from private capital, or giving a new deal to taxpayers that is sound enough that they believe in their government again.

Because most redevelopment projects use financing methods that reduce taxes of redeveloped properties below what they should be, the inner city achievements described in this book and throughout America will be even more difficult to finance in the future; given that cities now need those taxes. Nor can cities be trusted by redevelopers to support their investment and provide quality public services to homebuyers and tenants. The redevelopment methods described in this book, quite unfortunately, may not work soon… unless we chart a new course.

Today, urbanism must adapt its prescriptions to help resolve the ‘de facto’ fiscal collapse of local government.

Fixing holes in municipal fiscal hulls requires many thoughtful experiments. Consistent results eventually will win a new consent from the governed. My hope is that within a few years, new observers of the quality that organized SynergiCity will surface and their experts who currently are reinventing public services will describe how municipalities are using taxes wisely again. These future authors will have the credibility to synthesize another book that describes a strategy for fiscal sustainability; thus, recreating urbanism’s tight multi-benefit formula for the future.

If we find a strategic calm amidst today’s chronic budget battles, we will craft tools for fiscal sustainability that radically reinvent services so they are cheaper and better and grow the economy while protecting the environment. Then, the next generation will have its AHA!

But for today, let’s consider ourselves at a rest point and reflect. Read SynergiCity. Go see its free exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation that runs through this summer. (You can buy the book there, too.) Savor this satisfying moment of the synergy that redevelopers have built… and don’t worry about the next pop-up problem. Cities are resourceful enough to find cures.

In answering cities’ fiscal cry by crafting a new social contract tight enough to protect citizens and taxpayers, we will earn satisfaction… of a lifetime.

Robert Munson’s last contribution to The Urbanophile was the Chicagoism series in which he digs around at the roots of environmental, economic and fiscal sustainability; searching out common themes suitable to test an urban social contract for the sustainable century.

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 5: Where We Go From Here by Robert Munson

As we prepare to wrap up this series, let’s review where we’ve covered to date.

In the first post, we set the context for Chicago’s ambition to serve as the transportation center for the manufacturing and consumer economy; as symbolized by the 1933 World’s Fair. Audaciously declaring Chicago’s leadership during a deep depression, the economy that emerged had a policy stabilizer, the New Deal, that also was coined in 1933. That political economy peaked in the 1960s, as did Chicago. After Boss Daley died, the ensuing 15 years of political chaos threw Chicago’s ego into a tailspin. Then almost miraculously as the largest example of Rust Belt revitalization, Daley’s son righted Chicago as businesses and people started returning. Chicagoism — and its spirited ambition — had been revived.

The second post gives Daley credit for rebalancing the city with its suburbs and pioneering policies for “greening” America’s cities. But as it turns out, “green” was not good enough for sustainability to grow. A “green” strategy could not balance the environment with economic growth. Equally bad, governments notorious for their corruption also became broke and dysfunctional. Despite revitalizing great swaths of Chicago, Daley suffered the fate of most mayors: he left a fiscal mess. It looks now as if broke governments are suppressing Chicago’s economy; possibly explaining its poor performance in the 2010 Census. What is more, it neglected to update the infrastructure that made it made it the Second City.

In the third post…. Attacking key fiscal problems in January 2011, Rahm’s campaign introduced the concept of fiscal sustainability. To keep that promise, his administration accelerated the reinvention of those public services that required little capital. Rahm impressed citizens — particularly during his first 100 Days– that their government could move Chicago forward again. Contrary to a century of evidence and folklore, Chicagoans began to think their government could be more accountable.

The after-affect of politicians who promise too much to get elected has been dubbed the sophomore swoon. Rahm beat his with a multi-benefit strategy that gave him enough two-for-one victories that kept his popularity high, despite budget cuts causing detractors. But with the low-hanging fruit largely harvested, Rahm had to break into new territory.

The fourth post analyzes two breakthroughs in September 2012. First was the announcement that Rahm had reduced the current budget deficit to less than any of the previous four years of red ink. For skeptics, fiscal sustainability went from a pipedream to the light at the end of the tunnel.

A day later, the second major innovation helped many more people see the Big Picture. The City published the Action Agenda, Sustainable Chicago 2015. Now, economic growth through new industries would aid environmental balance. Equally important, transporting people and goods became a higher priority than Daley’s second decade.

These breakthroughs indicate that Rahm is synthesizing how sustainability works in the political sphere. This is our platform to answer this series’ Big Question: Are we positioning to earn the fifth star on Chicago’s flag? We explore that next.

How Chicagoism’s Sustainable Update Suits the Flag

Before I dig into why Chicagoans deserve another star in their flag for rationalizing public services to fit a sustainable economy, you might link to a fun post on “Chicago’s City Flag”. It gives insight into why this flag is a prominent symbol of more than government and probably feeds Chicagoan’s allegiance… and perhaps its windiness, too.

Consider the flag as a history of how Chicagoans sell a somewhat improbable future; but by dint of human will, the improbable somehow gets done.

That first star symbolizes humble beginnings. Fort Dearborn was an outpost on a swamp that Native Americans would not settle; complaining of the smell of onions. Building a transportation center on a swamp is proof positive of Chicagoan’s entrepreneurial talents… and perhaps its windiness, too.

The third star was the 1894 Columbian Exposition when Chicago built this fantastic great White City within a dangerous and downright filthy factory town. (And to repeat a known fact, the pitch to The International Exposition Committee earned Chicago its “windy” moniker.) After convincing the world of its noble intent, Chicago was positioned to promote itself as the commercial center of a great continent.

The flag’s fourth star represents the 1933 World’s Fair that improbably boasted about Progress during the worst depression this nation had seen. For the next four decades, Chicago centered the melding of the nation’s manufacturing and consumer economies. Ambition achieved.

Transcending all this improbability, that second star may be today’s most useful analogy. It symbolizes Chicago’s rebuilding after the Great 1871 Fire. Arguably the western world’s greatest urban makeover, Chicago quickly introduced the steel-frame skyscraper, innovated modern building codes and vastly raised property values of what had become a glorified swamp. Three decades later, this fledgling town would hold 500% more people and became the nation’s second largest city by the 1901 Census. Many 19th Century cities had fires and rebuilt. None did so with keener intent than Chicago.

Consider why this analogy offers insight today. The 20th Century’s great domestic calamity was to hollow out America’s cities, usually the locus of metropolitan prosperity. Sufficient research shows cities add value and create profit better than suburbs. Also seemingly unknown to our mistaken mid-century impulse to sprawl, cities are more environmentally sustainable. Merging these two facts into one strategy — to build new industries to improve the environment — should keep Chicago as The Second City for decades to come.

While possibly an exemplar to help other cities retool, the data shows Chicago has slowed to a crawl in today’s real estate depression. We have discovered that broken governments are weak problem-solvers; aligned wrong to organize sustainable systems. Structured wrong, governments are ill-prepared to face a triple conflagration of dysfunction, insolvency and taxpayer rebellion.

This triple conflagration has obscured local government’s chief obstacle. Politicians incorrectly assume the public is unwilling to rebuild services. Rather, politicians should test this premise: if taxpayers first can hold their government accountable, then they will invest.

Accountability improves the chances for financial protection. Sustainability’s multiple benefits provide a reasonable return. Are we up to the task of rebuilding sustainably? Can we get multiple benefits with less?

Ingrained into its DNA, Chicago’s ego carried into the Sustainable Century with this telling jousting. Recall that Daley’s policy goal to be America’s greenest major city was challenged by Mayor Bloomberg echoing similar goals. Daley became uncharacteristically mute. But in a display of hyper-chutzpah, Rahm resumes the ambition to make “Chicago the greenest city;” again using the goals in “Sustainable 2015” as a synthesizing manifesto.

In a big city, those changes get applied many ways. A telling example of Chicago’s intent lives in the details of its October 2012 pronouncement that its Complete Streets program produced the “Greenest Street in America.” This video shows how the main street of a 19th Century industrial neighborhood and run-down during the 20th Century is, now, being regenerated sustainably; investing public funds to reduce maintenance costs, creating a market for sustainable streetscape products built here and, as a multi-benefit, attracting other commerce to an area that needs it.

Despite all this progress, sustainability’s weak link is government. Whether the problem is endless red ink or inadequate services or corruption, few politicians propose the missing part of the mix: we must raise new taxes. Taxpayers rightfully will resist; because they know their government is corrupted and new revenue only compounds that waste.

So what is the cure-all for government’s ills? Consider that public financing of campaigns gets at the root cause and should be seriously considered as prerequisite to higher or, certainly, new taxes.

While I clearly am fueled by Chicago’s long-winded boosterism, even I admit that fine sentiment about fiscal sustainability, realignment of Illinois’ powers and public financing of campaigns will butt heads with entrenched interests who created the mess.

To make sense of this fine sentiment and keep believing in a sustainable update, this fifth star will be Chicagoism’s best boast. To put time constraints on what otherwise could be constant improvement, let’s work with Rahm’s timeframe of achieving a sustainable framework by 2015.

That gives us three years. How do we make the most of this year just started?

Where Are the Pivot Points in 2013?

Rahm’s January 2011 campaign promise to achieve fiscal sustainability looks out today on to an incoherent battlefield. Instead, our city needs a unified team to move forward. Frankly, Rahm hasn’t had enough help from Chicago’s constituent parts.

- Citizens’ first impulse on a service cut is to complain, instead of figuring out how to do without or a new combination of doing something ourselves.

- Union officials negotiating labor contracts for the public’s employees seem unaware that their employer is going down.

- The private sector, the masters of efficiency, have largely not addressed how to improve services with less; even though their businesses depend on services and infrastructure. And…

- The State of Illinois? Well, don’t get me started. I’ve said an earful about them.

When Chicago’s constituent parts are confronted with the enormous changes required to stay solvent, hard feelings could rule. While this anger will not change Rahm’s reelection in 2015, his next big move will be to the Senate in 2016. As I view this context, Mayor Emanuel has two goals for 2013.

First Goal: Get Chicago on the path to Fiscal Sustainability. 2013 is a short window to make the toughest cuts and have contract disputes. Most of 2014 will mend fences, Furthermore, we cannot count on the next Mayor having either the force of Daley’s power or Rahm’s popularity. Or, look at it this way: based on its history, what are Chicago’s chances of being run by three successive political geniuses?

Second Goal: Make peace with a new deal. By turning combatants into a constituent parts that work together, new social contracts make peace. Rahm will call it what he wants — whether it is The Sustainable Deal, The Third Way, or an appeal to constituent ambitions like Chicagoism. But all deals serve the same goal: satisfy enough people so they work together for a better future.

Rahm may know the next moves in his campaign for fiscal sustainability. But, we don’t. And we are not in the discussion; unless we put ourselves there. So before the 2013 window of opportunity closes, let me suggest three practical next steps or Jobs.

Not surprisingly, each Job correspond to Chicagoism’s 3R principles.

Job #1: Sketch The Deal for Infrastructure Updates. Rahm’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust will do too little; unless it gets public capital. Since Uncle Sam has retreated and Illinois is broke, Chicago’s taxpayers must fill the void to reverse the two decade backlog of maintaining what we have.

So as part of the deal with taxpayers, Rahm needs to propose a new Realignment of taxing authority. Research shows that if taxpayers get a tangible service, they are likely to vote for the increase. Illinois may resist and want their take so they can pay long overdue bills. If so, we got our chance to expose their abuse of their taxing authority and how it is paying past mistakes instead of fixing for the future.

Job #2: When Rahm’s current Fiscal Sustainability Plan A does not work, propose Plan B. When Reinventing labor-intensive services doesn’t reduce the red ink enough, then Reinventing Radically needs to be proposed. The most likely pressures making obsolete Rahm’s Plan A will be the fiscal impact of unpayable retiree benefits. Fair or not, the popular perception is these benefits are making every public service hurt. It is further apparent from the teachers’ strike that too little fiscal progress with existing employees can be made under current laws and using contract negotiations.

While a sustainable deal for retiree benefits probably will be settled in the courts, Rahm starts the political side of the renegotiation process — and a “Third Way” — with an aggressive Plan B that is believable enough to get us to Fiscal Sustainability.

Job #3: Propose campaign finance reform. There was a powerful tone-setting symbolism of Rahm’s first actions in what I called “The 5 Ethical Executive Orders” and his Task Force on Tax Increment Financing. But, the storyline of a new-sheriff-in-town now needs its second Act.

Part of the deal for public capital could be to elect a subsequent CIT and have the election waged with public funds only used for rational, intelligent debate about how to maximize public investment for the public good. And as a grand coup for taxpayers and citizens alike, Rahm can really boost his popularity by having his successor also elected only by using public funds (certain Supreme Court rulings notwithstanding.)

If Rahm does all this, then we got our deal… and protection for our money’s worth.

All three of the above proposals still need work. Since they have already been proposed in different form, try a succinct version and revisit The Urbanophile September 21 roundup for details.

While keen proposals are important, public perception is key. Made cynical by special interests freely buying government favor, citizens and taxpayers will not easily believe in a new deal. So, it had better be one that makes sense using public dollars.

A productive tool to detail the deal in 2013 is to update the recent Action Agenda and entitle it “Sustainable Chicago 2016.” As discussed, the 2015 version merged environmental balance and economic growth; essentially proposing a Quality Of Life in the sustainable era.

The 2016 version should merge the following tactics into an updated Fiscal Sustainability. With the easy fixes done, Reinventing services now means sacrifice: deep budget cuts, causing noticeably fewer services and, importantly, new taxes for tangible improvements. These three components solidify the second leg of the tripod.

To make sacrifice politically palatable and strike a lasting social contract, the third leg of the tripod protects the deal: a major Reform of accountability measures… especially campaign finance. As stated, Rahm needs to finish what he started so well with his early ethical Executive Orders.

Rahm has assembled some very smart staff to write a deal’s details. But for consistency, City staff are free to borrow that social contract graphic from my fourth article. As part of my civic duty, I’ll even volunteer the deal’s tripod specific to the above three Jobs for 2013 and their corresponding 3R principles.

Does Chicagoism’s update help other cities find their “Third Way?” This could make a fertile field for some productive arguments in 2013. I’ve just thrown my gauntlet at your feet.

What Local “Third Way” Works For Your City

As you know, every city is different. Chicago’s “Third Way” depends on transporting people and goods more efficiently and, then, using that advantage to create value through new products and services. To build that infrastructure, Chicago also must overcome its greatest weakness: accountability to taxpayers.

But in most cities, that Catch-22 is similar: to get at your city’s strategic advantage, you will need better public services. And until citizens trust local government enough to invest in more efficient programs, there is scant chance those services will be sustainable with new taxes.

Here’s a quick example of the transition to sustainability from the place “Where the Rust Belt Started.” That quotation is a common analysis of Duluth, Minnesota. It also serves as its residents’ good-natured and transcendent boast. While visiting family near Duluth on the Thanksgiving just past, I was encouraged by how well Duluth has stabilized. It serves as an inspiration — and cautionary tale — for other small and mid-sized Rust Belt cities.

As background and interesting micro-analogy, Duluth boomed similarly to Chicago. Capitalizing on its proximity to raw resources, Duluth built North America’s westernmost inland port that got its start shipping iron ore, coal, grains and lumber (much of it through Chicago.) But sixty years after its status as a turn-of-the-century boomtown, those mines and Duluth entered three decades of struggle; ending the 1980s with a depressing 16% unemployment in the years after U.S. Steel closed its plant.

Today, Duluth has stabilized at 89,000; dropping only 15% from their peak. (Most Rust Belt towns dominated by an industry dropped twice that percentage or more.) Duluth did better by starting with the “eds and meds” strategy that was on the cutting edge of the 1980s. Schools and hospitals became the biggest employers. The new century updated this strategy by developing Duluth as a home to several bio firms and adding diversification. More recently, Duluth utilizes its strengths as a transportation hub that adds value to manufacturing wind generators, increasingly important to a sustainable economy in the sparse, flat places west and north.

And just to prove that the formula works to convert manufacturing messes, Duluth had the moxie to remake itself as a center for year-round tourism, despite its wicked winters.

Another thing Chicago shares with Duluth is leadership in the treacherous terrain to achieve fiscal sustainability. To its credit, Duluth led an early fiscal honesty with taxpayers. In 2002, Duluth investigated the true costs of its generous health benefits for its employees and retirees.

Using this actuarial investigation as its lead, a 2005 article in “The New York Times” described a fiscal epidemic in which these costs would bankrupt Duluth and many other cities. The article further explains how the Duluth study prompted a change in government accounting that hid benefits as an off-balance sheet item and, instead, started telling taxpayers more truth about what they owe employees. These new national reporting standards have resulted, today, in taxpayers finally being able to see the pervasive spread of this fiscal cancer.

After several years of finger-pointing, the otherwise good service of two Duluth mayors got tarred by the popular conclusion that politicians gave away municipal solvency in exchange for their reelection which, in turn, depended on the City’s employee unions.

Having tasted betrayal, Duluth’s taxpayers — as part of a national trend — will need a new social contract before they invest again. Until they get a deal they trust, services can be cut and modest changes made. When that doesn’t balance the books, Duluth also will need radical reinvention which, inevitably, requires taxpayer investment.

With health benefits symbolizing similar challenges throughout much of local government, other cities also need to map their transition to sustainability. To varying degrees, this sacrifice involves a deal. What is Duluth’s?

What deal gets taxpayers to move your city forward?

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here? (this post)

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again by Robert Munson

The October 2012 publication of “Sustainable Chicago 2015” shows how much Chicago has changed under new management. In the Land of Clout (fairly or unfairly reputed), sustainable opportunity became the new operative.

Daley did his job well as Chicago’s booster-in-chief to global corporations. However at the other end of the spectrum, he knew his emphasis on “green” technology was being integrated too slowly to grow the enterprises of the new economy. Amidst all Daley’s enormous energy, Chicago still seemed to lack a clear strategy. I’d argue this let diversions creep in and contributed lots to Chicago’s reduced economic growth as revealed in the 2010 Census.

In the above 40 page booklet, Rahm clarifies this strategy by elevating economic sustainability to serve as policy partner to the environment. This Action Agenda has reasonably specific goals and synthesizes into a coherent whole many innovations of the Daley administration and those Rahm started to implement or propose.

The result: this Agenda paints The Big Picture and positions “Chicago as a hub for the growing sustainable economy.” With one key phrase, everyone gets it.

Rahm merges what Daley probably wanted to merge, but couldn’t given the distractions of fiscal fires and his Olympic quest. Rahm better seems to be persuading firms to expand offices here because he offers a more integrated vision. Pioneering a key part of the Chicagoism update, Rahm has prioritized finding the synergy in environmental and economic sustainability.

This concept’s rubber meets the road (or rails) in Rahm’s reshaping Chicago’s transportation-commerce nexus for the 21st Century. “2015” outlines several innovations, but gets back to basics by emphasizing upgrades for Chicago’s systems to move people and freight. Four of the 24 goals in the “Action Agenda” enhance mobility directly and a few more goals do so indirectly. This is key to serving as the Midwest’s commercial center and portal to the global economy.

To continue earning that role requires helping make products and services more sustainably. For that, Chicagoans must rekindle their entrepreneurial zeal and retool its consulting industry.

As a telling example of our post-Daley progress, recall the critique in this series’ second post: ten years of the Chicago Center for Green Technology had not developed traction that created jobs. So in July 2012, the City hired startup business consultants as part of CCGT’s new management team. Judging from CCGT’s December “Sustainability News”, the change is working well. This issue packages into the CCGT seven transit and energy innovations; including Chicago’s latest ambition to become a center to manufacture electric vehicles. Tell me if you know, does the City of Detroit have that platform to solve its job problems ?

Yet, the real debate in Chicago’s economic strategy is between specializing and staying diverse. I think the transition to sustainability can transcend this argument.

On the side of specificity creating value-added profits, an Urbanophile post argues how Chicago needs a calling card industry. Without this specialized high-profit edge, Chicago’s role in a global economy has fewer competitive rewards.

On the other side and describing a traditionally diverse economy, World Business Chicago’s “Plan For Economic Growth” has lots of something for everyone; offering ten strategies. To me, the document lacks strategic focus; reflecting Chicago’s economic diversity and its role in serving as transportation and commercial center … but minimizes our strength as an entrepreneurial problem-solver.

This dilemma of balancing higher-profit specification with diversity starts to get resolved in the “Action Agenda.” Of its twenty-four goals, ten add to economic opportunity and several more do so less directly. Not in the “Agenda” but serving as a more specific and transcendent resolution, consider converting Chicago’s 1990s role as the consultancy center that helped corporate America into the information economy and, now, re-tool those services to help corporations with the environment better. Largely, this point was made by the Urbanophile 30 months ago.

What About That Budget?

The second panel I see in Rahm’s Big Picture gives us hope: the Emanuel Administration has turned around a largely insolvent City (one that cannot pay its bills) and improved its chances of avoiding bankruptcy.

Since the City’s fiscal abyss was finally becoming public knowledge, Rahm’s January 2011 campaign promise of fiscal sustainability had its skeptics … including the author of this series. But the clearest bottom-line progress came with the September 2012 announcement (and fanfare) that the projected 2013 budget deficit would be 20% less than expected and the smallest since 2008. This was followed with a new budget that crowed about no new taxes or fees. (While “no new taxes” acknowledges the ‘de facto’ tax strike among even one of the nation’s most liberal citizenry, the “no new fees” is a promise to be watched before it can be believed.)

However, this fiscal progress should not conceal how the last penetrating recession exposed fatal flaws in most municipal budgets everywhere. The Daley Administration responded initially by treating a surface wound; by applying band aids, such as the sale of assets (as in parking meters.)

The Emanuel Administration has a more correct analysis; allowing for a more productive strategy. Yet, they have not gone public with a full prognoses: that the organs of government have been badly infected with unsustainable obligations and we need to rework radically those services and how they are paid for.

While some politicians and civic leaders have taken the easy route and pointed at pension obligations, the bigger truth should not be lost: facing chronic deficits, local government must actively develop alternatives to serve the public’s will and maximize tax dollars.

Even though Rahm reduces Daley’s deficit by more than 50%, he doesn’t solve the problem; he just sews up the hemorrhage. The slower bleeding from deficits still continues. This combines with the psychological pain of agencies failing to do better with less. Worse, another recession with a gridlocked federal government and its chronic fiscal cliff could re-open the hemorrhage and accelerate our day of reckoning.

Rahm’s partial progress toward fiscal balance is only a prerequisite to future growth. We also need to find the new investment that is required for us to compete. In this long, hard road back to health, fiscal sustainability’s middle steps must overcome these three forces: first, key costs are mostly contractual; second, bureaucracies resist improvements; third, policy remains corrupted. Let’s take a quick look at each force in order to reckon with it.

1. Controlling personnel costs requires near-constant focus. Since 78% of the City’s budget is personnel costs and most are contractual, the Emanuel Administration has an insufficient chance to convert a string of seven years of red ink into a surplus. To improve their chances (and ours), there are two options. First, they drastically cuts services and risks quickly becoming unpopular. Or second, labor contracts will need to be routinely renegotiated to facilitate the reinvention of services.

Without contract flexibility, the older and more bureaucratic services (which also are more likely to have expensive contracts) are more difficult to update. Suspecting that they are backing proven losers, taxpayers resist.

Worse… with personnel costs still voraciously eating the future at almost the same rate as Daley’s last years, there is no money to invest in the infrastructure required to compete.

2) Reinvention of services has a limited track record of producing fiscal savings required to avoid bankruptcy. To start that reinvention, Rahm early on told public employees that “competition” would be the operating principle for public services. Words like these seemed to improve City employees’ quality of work. But such talk also put unions on guard. Their tactical push-back seemingly meets most Mayoral moves. When these little resistances get taken to scale, anticipated or touted labor savings shrink to insignificance as tools to change century-long habits of spending more, yet getting less value for citizens.

Limits became obvious to me when teachers struck for a week last September, largely to minimize the discipline of poor teachers. Worse, teachers got a contract in which taxpayers will pay a premium to raise Chicago’s classroom hours closer to those of other large systems.

My question is: what caused Rahm’s lieutenants to take this bad deal? And specifically, did too many parents make the short-term complaint about losing their day care system for a week? Wouldn’t children be better if a longer strike resulted in teachers meeting real-world performance standards and, thus, reflect those that teachers are supposed to be preparing children for?

Today’s labor contract could be viewed as poison from a taxpayers’ standpoint. Over half the property tax goes to schools and is nearly their exclusive revenue source. Yet, this tax still bears no guarantee to get rid of the bad apples who lower the system’s standards. And of course, our fiscal reality is property taxes will have to go up to cover the premium cost of longer-hours which, again, carry no guarantee of improved performance. To boot, those taxes will go up on properties that have just lost 25% of their value.

Caught in this wasteful trap, who can believe that higher taxes will be invested well in our children’s education… or, even, our future? With our schools as a primary example, only radical reinvention leads to the belief that money is well spent.

3) Illinois’ 20th century corruption hangover went from worse to broke. While citizens and the media wag fingers at politicians for ethical improprieties, none cost as much as the decades-long deal for labor peace. There are multiple true costs; some discussed above. But the big one here is we have had decades of abusing democracy by letting public employee unions deliver campaign reelection funds and workers to legislators. Instead of protecting taxpayers and citizens, legislators have become dependent on public employees for reelection.

This political power gave leverage to employees that yielded generous benefits; often protecting them within the Illinois Constitution. These reelection gifts also bought their way into Illinois’ political hierarchy; best represented by the same man ruling the legislature for almost three decades.

This lack of political competition creates corruption and produces today’s lose-lose-lose situation: retirees cannot be paid the benefits promised; agencies will have to reduce benefits using disruptive insolvencies; and the resulting dysfunctional agencies inevitably hurt citizens and corporations who depend on public services.

What Is the Way Out of This Fix?

Rahm’s tactics worked well enough to get him through his sophomore year and still be popular. Despite his tremendous energy, substantial force of personality and genius at political maneuvers, I’m guessing Rahm has shown us his best stuff.

Look at his rebuilding the commerce-transportation nexus. This is at the heart of Chicagoism’s ambition for central status. Rahm put some of his best stuff into The Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT). He had to. Facing a broke state and a two decade backlog of fixing what we have, Rahm decided to raise private capital via the CIT. This is America’s first municipal experiment of such a Trust. And determined to make this work, Rahm used his best pay-back chips by bringing The Big Dog (President Clinton) to announce CIT over 11 months ago. CIT even got some seed capital from Clinton’s Sustainable Initiatives Foundation.

Since then, little of substance has happened. Talk and expectations remain high. They have to. We have paltry alternatives; given taxpayer resistance to fund these vital updates. Today with money scarce, expectations are muted.

The CIT is important for other reasons. The key one is CIT will require lots of public “buffer” capital to do the riskier, but needed, deals. With an expensive two-decade backlog of updates merely to put yesterday’s infrastructure into “a state of good repair,” taxpayers soon will have to back the riskier side of deals. Getting that public capital is an opportunity to strike a new deal with taxpayers; to give them a contract with the future.

How the CIT — and other initiatives — actually get going in earnest depends on how the above three obstacles start getting resolved in 2013. And that depends largely on Rahm’s level of citizen support. Will we tolerate the inconveniences when services get cut and labor peace gets frayed? Is our threshold high enough to tolerate a garbage strike in summer? To cut to the chase: Will those among us who squawk alot restrain ourselves enough for the common good and, instead, at least not squawk too much while better rules are written?

These inconveniences could be a tough test for a citizenry seemingly bred to bellyache.

But the bellyache, while not thoughtful, does indicate we are not getting our money’s worth.

So, the core question now becomes: how do we give citizens and taxpayers value?

Instead of Antiquated Labor Contracts, Focus on Future Social Contracts

Harken back to Chicagoism’s first installment which started with the 1933 Worlds Fair. This symbolically launched the consumer economy in the same year that Roosevelt coined its political complement, the New Deal.

How the 21st Century crafts a Sustainable Deal depends on the genius of someone like Rahm. For example, the CIT and its need for public capital is Rahm’s opportunity to craft prototypes that convert our ‘de facto’ tax strike into a deal in which we willingly invest in again… because we have to. What is more, investing well is our new civic responsibility.

Despite Rahm’s impressive progress in two short years, distrust of higher taxes is the primary obstacle to Chicagoism’s update. Distrust breeds from the lack of accountability to taxpayers. Hence as part of their contract to invest in future infrastructure, we should include Reforming accountability measures as key to the deal.

Think of the annotated graphic below as a guide to how Sustainability’s 3Rs serve as principles of the tripod that steadies a deal so taxpayers see that their investment in the next generation of infrastructure is money well spent.

As we define the terms of a sustainable social contract for Chicago (which also can serve as prototype for Chicagoland), we can probe into how a contract serves the common good; that quaint notion that made our nation… and the one that “The Greatest Generation” understood so well that they pulled together great responses to the crises of their times.

To respond well to ours, Americans will need to transcend today’s un-civil war between the reds and the blues. I’m not betting that happens soon. In the meantime, we can be a beacon in our little corner around Lake Michigan. In the next and final article, we will review Chicagoism and see how it applies to where you live and to what your fellow citizens need.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again (this post)
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms by Robert Munson

This photo represents what historians could come to regard as the Chicago Spring. At this moment in May 2011, there were two big breaks with history. First and obvious, the person leading Chicago’s transformation changed from Richard to Rahm. Richie Daley’s two decades made Chicago half-ready as a leader of the Sustainable Century. Making us fully ready depends on fulfilling Rahm’s campaign promise of “fiscal sustainability.” This is his key challenge… and our responsibility, too. This photo also captures the good fortune of Chicagoans to have political genius-follow-genius in the Mayor’s Office.

Seemingly staged to capture a second and larger historical transformation, officials from all levels of government are present: the Vice President (hidden partially by Daley and whom Rahm has just shaken hands with), the Governor and Cook County officials. The photo implies an unspoken acknowledgement that governing cities well requires a Realignment of authorities, one of the 3Rs in the update of Chicagoism.

The second R — Reinventing services — was central to Rahm’s Inaugural. And the third R — Reforming accountability — was symbolized by his first official acts; what I call The Five Ethical Executive Orders, including the Mayor not taking campaign gifts from City contractors.

As a useful way to picture Rahm’s challenges and our transition to a government that can address today’s challenges, let’s quickly introduce how these 3Rs build a framework that generalizes a key problem, suggests how a principle of sustainability can guide solutions (see bubble diagram in Section 2) and summarizes solutions as Sustainability’s 3Rs.

Back to the details of Chicago’s transition under Rahm…. The positives of a new era were apparent quickly. Many Chicagoans also knew we should start girding ourselves to make the tough choices ahead. Details may differ, but many of these decisions are common to America’s cities today. To contrast the difference between talking about Big Changes and actually getting things done, the tale immediately below is instructive.

Compare Occupy Chicago to Chicago Spring

These two simultaneous events tell us a lot about how government will reconnect to its citizens. Occupy Chicago resulted in little more than an inchoate protest. While serving as a resonant response to our deadened federal and state democracy, Occupy Chicago still was three or four stages removed from the practical reforms needed to remake governments so they work again. Some 18 months from starting its talk, the Occupy movement is mostly memory.

While much of the nation was struggling in a democracy-of-irons, Chicago Spring launched our city on a path that can break through democracy’s complications. Chicago Spring accelerated the previous decade’s changes using governing strategies that this series synthesizes as an updated Chicagoism. Consider this practical -ism as a framework to categorize the first two years of changes and, more important, craft the deal needed for sustainable progress.

Rahm’s First 100 Days Opens Horizons to a Deal

During his transition, Emanuel talked straight to the City Council with comments such as “Nothing ahead of us is easy. It’s all hard.” Welcoming frankness and rapid changes, Chicagoans seemed to like what they got. Rahm’s honeymoon was applauded with an astounding approval rate pushing over 80% by Labor Day.

Accompanied by a PR machine producing prodigious press releases announcing an amazing and full range of improvements, here are some samples gleaned from the many 100 Days reviews offered by opinion-makers; most of whom were impressed, but felt it was too early for conclusive results. This condensed list only glimpses at Rahm’s enormously energetic display of remaking municipal government.

* Outlined $75 million in savings in before the Inauguration; realizing $50M before September 2011.

* Expanded the privatization of recycling. Plus, continued re-routing garbage collection.

* Created the city’s first ever interactive budget website at

* Hosted the first Facebook town hall and several other innovative public forums.

* Announced securing 4,000 private sector jobs downtown and some neighborhoods.

On the fraud and abuse front, Rahm even reined in credit card use by City managers.

Further Acts of Accountability

To show his intent to cleanup the bigger money, he also tried to resolve Daley’s primary blemish by creating a task force to recommend reforms to Tax Increment Financing. In an assertive effort to avoid future TIF scandals and to minimize the ever-present appearances of impropriety in the particularly murky world of real estate deals, Rahm had the Task Force deliver proposals quickly by late August.

Accepted by most mainstream observers as a genuine effort at reform, the TIF report and the five Executive Orders served to give many Chicagoans pause to ponder that the “city that works” might actually do so in a reasonably ethical manner.

As a hindsight summary, consider Rahm’s first 100 Days as a political triumph because it made possible the changes that were to follow.

With its honeymoon faded, the Emanuel Administration’s rapid progress slowed as 2011 ended. Running out of low-hanging fruit to harvest, the Administration also had to contend with the dissatisfactions bred by budget cuts.

While big statement changes — such as the Five Ethical Executive Orders — were less frequent and the PR machine made more muted music, Rahm’s Administration still made solid progress during 2012. If you need more convincing, make a quick revisit to “The Urbanophile” September 2012 post, “Fixing Chicago: Rahm’s Work In Progress.”

In part, progress continued when the governed started sensing a new reality: Rahm’s strategy ameliorated small sacrifices by making things better in multiple ways.

How A Multi-Benefit Strategy Works for “The City That Works” and Can Work for Your City, Too

Compare Chicago’s 2012 results to those of Uncle Sam or Illinois. What level of government is creating “the new order of things” and which levels are preventing it?

While every government’s dilemmas are different, Rahm’s strategy produces progress because it markets multiple benefits: one change helps citizens in multiple ways. For example, Rahm tells the administration to publish the City’s data and let the private sector profit by adding value. Characteristic of how sustainable strategies produce multiple benefits, Rahm’s strategy has three wins.

First, sharing data makes possible greater accountability, a break from Daley’s secretive years.

Second, greater information flow can boost Rahm’s present problem: making services more efficient. Emerging when Daley was Mayor, the biggest example is BusTracker because it reduces waiting time and increases ridership and revenue. Other innovations also are creating the incremental use of data that, in total, makes noticeable progress.

Third, this governing strategy also stimulates local startups in the information economy by developing micro-applications. This last area could prime the pump to grow an industry that helps update Chicago’s role as a global center. While industrial Chicago took raw materials and added value to consumer products, an information-based Chicago today can convert more data into sustainable practices.

(If all this multi-benefits stuff sounds familiar, it should. It is a verbal rendition of the same dynamic describing the bubble diagram in Section 2.)

While we have too few results to judge how well Rahm’s overall tech strategy is working, it helped carry him over bumps during 2012. And for a few risks and pitfalls that may become apparent, go to the end of “The Urbanophile” post “Thoughts On Chicago’s Tech Scene.”

Whether or not Rahm’s tech emphasis is a triumph for economic growth, his information strategy helps two of the three “R” principles emerging in the 21st Century Chicagoism: Reinventing services and Reforming accountability. While seeking the Synergy “thing” certainly helps give the impression of progress, we explore two key examples of what we hope is lasting progress in the next installment.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms (this post)
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

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