Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
As a followup to my “What’s Killing California” piece, here are a couple of other takes in the media of late.
Time Magazine staked out an optimistic position on the state in a major cover story called, “Golden State is Thriving, Despite Its Woes“.
John B. Judis takes a more centrist track over at The New Republic in his lengthy “End State“. While he grants Time’s assertion that California is a powerhouse in high tech, biotech, and green industries – but notes that jobs in those sectors continue to decline despite output gains.
My piece on Detroit as an urban laboratory and new American frontier is still going crazy out there on the web. I wouldn’t have expected it when I wrote it, but that is now the all time number one article on my site.
The international press continues to have a field day. The Guardian weighs in again this week, talking about how the Motor City became a ghost town.
Popup City looks at how the car drained Detroit.
Yahoo says Detroit house auction flops for urban wasteland.
Time magazine talks about how private security is booming.
Detroit native James A. Reeves looks back at the city he grew up in.
City Journal’s Steven Malanga looks at feral Detroit.
Daniel Howes expresses outrage at an interesting Detroit practice. Various groups endorse and support candidates based on how much the candidates donates to them. They fund their PAC’s from candidates.
A Detroit city councilor says the city needs a Marshall Plan.
And here’s another Detroit classic from Sweet Juniper.
GOOD Video: Emerging City Innovation
The folks at GOOD put together this interesting video on innovation (if video does not display, click here):
GOOD also has a look at crappy bike lanes in pictures.
High Speed Rail – A Simple Point to Point Service
The Transport Politic has a great piece up on high speed rail corridor market share in Europe. Eurostar has an 85% market share on the London to Paris market, but for trips involving transfers on either end, market share is only 5%. This prompts the author to ask if direct service is the defining element of high speed rail.
This backs up something I said all along about the proposed Midwest high speed rail network. Namely that we should not view Chicago as the hub in the sense of an airline passenger or package sorting hub, which is all about traffic interchange, but rather as being about a series of point to point corridors driven almost entirely by O&D to and from Chicago. This has important implications:
- If each corridor stands alone, then you don’t need to build the full network to get value. Every corridor you build brings value in its own right. On the flip side, so-called network benefits may not be large as the system is built out.
- It is not necessary to have a single high speed rail terminal in Chicago. Rather, let each line use its own logic terminal station. This is important because the logical corridor is the IC/Metra Electric for all trains from the south and southeast (St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville). Rather than Union Station, you could have a station at Van Buren St. or Millennium Station.
The Economic Development Potential of African American Men
Rust Wire pointed us at a study by an organization I’d never heard of called Policy Bridge on African American men in Northeast Ohio. I haven’t read the entire thing in detail yet, but Rust Wire’s take looked interesting and the abstract hit a lot of the points I’ve pounded again and again on this blog:
The loss of African-American male potential is, in fact, a loss of income that is crippling the regional and state economies. Creating economic opportunity for African-American men is, in fact, creating opportunity for Greater Cleveland. By investing in better educating, fully employing, and fairly compensating the African-American male population, the area is investing in its own well-being. The return on investment will come in the form of increased consumer buying power, increased income and property taxes, increased civic engagement, and renewed economic growth.
Before this reward can be realized, however, the community must undergo a change in viewpoint: The African-American male population must no longer be seen as a potential drain on community resources, but as an untapped well of economic potential and a key ingredient to Northeast Ohio’s economic recovery.
Sad Transit Chart From Cleveland
Brewed Fresh Daily ran a great analysis of RTA ridership, which is poised to hit its lowest level ever:
Columbus to Use Conservation Easement to Preserve City Center Site
I previously reported that Columbus wanted to scrape the City Center Mall site and put a park there. I said this might not be a bad temporary use of the land, but that they would be unlikely to create the type of civic gathering place they hoped for. Well, not only is the city moving forward with the park plan, they also want to use a conservation easement to try to make sure it stays a park forever.
This would be a mistake. Not only will this park again likely not achieve the goals set out for it, one legislative body has no right to try to bind what future legislative bodies can do with that land. The world belongs in usufruct to the living. Just as the policies of the past – including many pernicious practices – don’t and should not control us today, we have no right to tell future generations how they ought to run their city.
Previous: City Center Mall to be demolished
Featured Site: American Dirt
I’ve linked to the relatively new blog American Dirt before, but wanted to highlight it again. The blog is written by a landscape architect in Indianapolis who takes a look at public spaces and the design of our cities in a critical and super-in depth way. He just started a major series on the City Market. This guy writes as long as I do on occasion – and that’s saying something – but it is excellent stuff. I actually have him on my National Blogroll because what he writes about is very relevant nationally and not everything is about Indy – he’s done pieces on many other cities. Suggested starting points:
- Is It a Chain? The Writing Is On the Wall
- Nature’s Impartiality Includes Nature Itself
- Stairways as an Unanswered Question
National and International Roundup
The Paris ideal of bike sharing meets reality. Apparently 80% of the initial Velib’ fleet has been destroyed or stolen.
New York was voted the most attractive place for business in the world, according to Japan’s Mori Memorial Foundation (Bloomberg via @jorgeimontalvo). Also in New York, Doing more with buses (Streetsblog).
A talk with Fred Siegal about three ways big cities go bad.
The Economist looks at the Dallas performing arts complex.
Atlanta water and sewer rates are among the nation’s highest, according to the Journal-Constitution. Again, Clean Water Act compliance is an incentive to working class people to head to the exurbs. One person had a water bill of over $200. And also in Atlanta, the New York Times reports on how the city’s string of black mayors may be broken.
The Southern Piedmont: Where NASCAR Meets NASDAQ (New Geography)
Melbourne predicts a population of 7 million by 2049 (The Age).
Columbus Dispatch: Sprucing up sidewalks seems to pay off for cities.
“When somebody tells you they just moved to Youngstown it probably isn’t helping the town’s image to blurt out, ‘Why?’” – new resident Liz Hill in at vindy.com (via Rust Wire)
Big Plans Afoot for Congress Parkway (Chicago Architecture Blog)
New Modern Wing Crosswalk on Monroe (Blair Kamin @ Chicago Tribune)
Environmental Report Gives NWI Another Bad Mark (Gary Post-Tribune)
Railbed Redux (Architect’s Newspaper) – Piece on Bloomingdale Trail
Can Cincinnati be the Silicon Valley of consumer marketing? (Hard Knox Life)
The Accidental Mayor (RiShawn Biddle @ The American Spectator) – Note: RiShawn is a former Indianpolis Star columnist.
City’s P&L district subsidy increasing to $20 million/year (BlogKC)
Girl, 12, is youngest Minnesotan to kill moose (MPR) – the picture is priceless
Sunday, October 18th, 2009
If any of you are headed to Rail~Volution 2009 in Boston, please be sure to check out the panel discussion I’m part of called “The Rail~Volution Will Not Be Televised”. Others participating will be Pantograph Trolleypole of The Overhead Wire and economist Ryan Avent. We’re discussing the use of social media technology for transit advocacy. You won’t want to miss it! If any of my readers are attending or are in the Boston area, shoot me a note and maybe we can connect while I’m there.
Also, I mentioned that I am upgrading the blog, replacing the design and going to a new domain. I have tentatively scheduled the cutover for this Friday, so be ready for it and stay tuned for further instructions.
African Americans as Economic Development Platform
Smart City Memphis is a great blog for the reader, even if it is pretty locally focused on that city. A recent post suggests the city needs to blow up old myths and start acting on facts. This part caught my eye.
There’s the myth our African-American majority is an economic drag. Because distinctiveness is the basis for competitive advantage, Memphis needs to be a hub of black talent. If that isn’t at the top of our economic development agenda, we’re not really in the economic development business.
Amen. I’ve made that same plea to Midwest cities. As you’ll see in a future post from me, self-styled progressive paragons like Portland have virtually no African Americans. Don’t try to beat other cities at their game, try to make them beat you at yours. Their African American populations are among the key assets of Midwest metros in figuring out how to compete and be relevant in the marketplace today. It’s a shame so few places act like it.
Selling the Suburbs
@PD_Smith points us at an absolutely must watch BBC audio slide show on selling the suburbs. It’s about an exhibit of posters and marketing materials for suburbs in early 20th century London. Key to this era of suburbs of course was the extension of transit lines, since we had yet to enter the auto era, but the description of their marketing program holds extremely valuable lessons for people today trying to sell people on city living. And the graphic design of the pieces is gorgeous.
Again, so often today we are preached at about the need to live in the city and told how great it is for us, but seldom are we actually sold on it. I’ve yet to see any city with a marketing campaign to lure people to their downtown that compares with the brief few minutes of suburban sales slides from the BBC. Even the graphic design alone blows most cities out of the water.
Here are a couple of relevant samples. These were how public transit was marketed not just as a way for people to move out of the city to the suburbs, but to come back into it to for entertainment. That’s still relevant today.
Apparently these people did not subscribe to the position that people won’t ride buses:
Rail is good too of course:
Touting proximity to entertainment:
Midwest Bike to Work
The Census American Community Survey data is a treasure trove of good stuff. Bike Pittsburgh took a look at the bike to work figures for various cities. They’ve even got an embedded Google spreadsheet with the data for every mode of commuting, so check it out. Portland was #1 in America with 6% biking to work. Here’s how the Midwest central cities stacked up vs. a top 60 city average of 0.98% and median of 0.6%:
- Minneapolis – 4.3% (#2 in the nation)
- Milwaukee – 1.1%
- Chicago – 1.0%
- Columbus – 0.9%
- Pittsburgh – 0.8%
- Cleveland – 0.7%
- St. Louis – 0.7%
- Cincinnati – 0.5%
- Louisville – 0.4%
- Detroit – 0.3%
- Indianapolis – 0.3%
- Kansas City -0.2%
The Detroit Frontier in the News
My post on Detroit as the new American frontier continues to generate a surprisingly large number of hits as people keep discovering it and passing it along to others. Here are a few articles illustrating the theme.
Here’s a great piece on making a difference in Detroit.
The bad stories are easy to find in Detroit. More than a quarter are unemployed. The school district’s graduation rate is dismal. Violent crime is among the highest in the nation. But the good stories are there, and a common thread among many is persistence, pluck and patience in navigating the city’s sometimes cumbersome bureaucracy.
“If you want something done, you often have to do it yourself here,” explained Kate Devlin, who, although she doesn’t own it,boarded up a vacant building herself in North Corktown and is waiting to buy it at the tax foreclosure auction rather than waiting for the city to bring wrecking crews.
It isn’t easy. Sometimes, residents have to get creative.
Here’s another one on a North End activist.
Delores Bennett is known as the Grandmother of the North End for a good reason.
When she sees a problem, she fixes it. And for four decades, that’s meant helping children stay out of trouble….. “I don’t want any money from the city because when you do it on our own there aren’t any limitations,” said Bennett, 76, whose North End Youth Improvement Council provides scholarships and serves as an umbrella group for her other efforts.
And here’s one about a mother trying to run drug dealers out of her neighborhood.
One house remained a drug haven whose users craved privacy, keeping blinds drawn during all hours. “If we could get in there, we could tear those blinds down and that would be that,” Hoerauf said. The duo persuaded an officer to check to make sure the house was empty before they entered and took down the blinds. The drug use stopped.
The common thread a see in all of these is a sort of frontier ethic of self-reliance. In Detroit, everyone knows the city is not going to take care of these problems. If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself. Life isn’t always pleasant on the frontier – it sure wasn’t in the early days of the American Midwest and West. But often that formative experience builds the foundation, and especially the character and ethos that enables good things to emerge even decades down the line. In Detroit, everyone from Afrocentric educators to artists and urban farmers are staking their claim. If Detroit really does revive, my money is on the solution coming out of this rich grass roots ferment.
Ohio Migration Data
Jim Russell pointed me at this interesting report from Community Research Partners in Columbus, Ohio. They used IRS tax return data, a standard source, to measure migration in Ohio. Here are some graphics I found particularly telling. These show intra-state migration for Ohio’s largest three cities. You can see strong suburban outmigration everywhere. But the telling thing is how Columbus is sucking in people from all over the state, but Cleveland and Cincinnati are not. Both Cleveland and Cincy have virtually no in-migration from the rest of the state and are losing people to Columbus. Their balance of trade with each other appears to be minimal.
Kansas City Transit
Kansas City has had an odd history with efforts to build a rail transit system. They voted for a system that couldn’t legally be constructed. Then they voted down a couple of other efforts. I never followed it that closely, but was always puzzled as to what was going on. A video out of KC this week explains a lot as far as I’m concerned. You’ll have to click the link to watch since it is on a newspaper web site and isn’t embeddable. I strongly encourage you to do so. The video is only two minutes long, and it’s priceless.
Meanwhile, the Jackson County executive unveiled a plan for a regional commuter rail system. This could get interesting.
Louisville Tourism and Relocation Ads
Louisville rolled out some tourism and relocation ads that generated a bit of controversy. They mimic the interminable TV ads out there for erectile dysfunction and depression medications. While I don’t think these ads really showcase the best value proposition or brand promise for Louisville, I thought they were pretty funny.
Taking a swipe at Ohio:
Cool Philly Transit Benches
Keeping with my theme of the importance of design in public transit infrastructure, the Architect’s Newspaper points us at a cool rail station bench in Philadelphia.
This was designed and built by the one stop design and fabrication shop Veyko.
National and International Roundup
The United Nations just issued a Global Report on Human Settlements for 2009. According to their research, 200,000 people around the world move to cities every day. Pretty impressive.
Luring artists to lend life to empty storefronts (NYC) – Hey there, Indy has been doing this for a long time.
San Francisco’s ground breaking parking meter study (Streetsblog)
Site Selection magazine has a great interview on the Midwest with Richard Longworth. (h/t Jim Russell)
Youngstown, Ohio: A young town again (The Economist) – Nice coverage in the international press.
Eyes on the Art Prize (NYT) – Dittos for Grand Rapids, where the Art Prize generated a ton of press.
Dead Reckoning – Chicago Magazine looks at the cemetery relocation at the heart of a dispute over the O’Hare Modernization Program.
Chicago planners pinpoint scaled back locally preferred alternative for Circle Line (Transport Politic)
Block 37 superstation, unfinished and unused (Transport Politic)
CTA fare increases through the years (WBEZ)
High speed rail? (Michigan City News-Dispatch)
Seniors ride free policy nearing its end – good (Greg Hinz @ Crain’s Chicago Business)
Mayor Bing unveils turnaround plan for Detroit (Detroit News)
Detroit’s crisis is nothing new (Laura Berman @ Detroit News)
Chamber wants to make region a logistic hub (Crain’s Detroit Business)
How to lose federal transit funding – again (Free Press)
From the credit where credit is due department, I should note that I drove up Illinois St. the other day where sidewalks are being replaced, and only one of the sewer inlets I saw appeared to be raised above the sidewalk grade.
Stimulus stirs work on Eads bridge (Post-Dispatch)
Southwest light rail line moves ahead (Star Tribune)
Thursday, September 17th, 2009
Columbus, Ohio is a very successful city that has benefited from a lot of great policy over the years. But I’m seeing some ominous signs that the city of Columbus is setting itself up for trouble down the road by pursuing revenue from outside its borders at the expense of internal and especially core development. There are lessons here for any city struggling with regional finance, so let’s take a look.
Columbus is by far the strongest big city in Ohio. One reason for this is that city leaders long ago had the foresight to require that anyplace that wanted to get water from the city had to agree to be annexed. Ohio law is very favorable to annexation when a city is supplying utility service. So while geographically small Cleveland and Cincinnati became encircled by suburbs, Columbus was able to keep expanding. Columbus does not have a city-county merger in effect, but has annexed the majority of Franklin County and even parts of several other counties, taking any number of major “suburban” malls and office developments inside its borders.
Now, however, annexation has slowed to a crawl. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the city has only annexed 14 acres this year. As recently as 2002, it annexed 2,123 acres. Suburban development hasn’t stopped. The city has just stopped annexing. Instead, it is pursuing a strategy of allowing surrounding suburbs to annex land, but using the lever of its water utility to get tax sharing and compensation if jobs move to the new development from the city.
In effect, Columbus has decided it is no longer worth directly developing and administering new territory. Instead, it is adopting the strategy of empire. That is, it will allow “colonies” to develop land and manage their own affairs, as long as they agree to send “tribute” back to the imperial capital in the form of tax sharing. Instead of legions of troops, the city is using its water utility as a hammer to secure these deals.
And that’s not all. The city derives significant revenue from an income tax. An incredible 53% of all income taxes collected by Columbus come from non-residents. This shows the extent of the imperial analogy. Columbus is sustained by revenue from outside its borders. It should come as no surprise then that the city turned to an income tax increase – which non-residents who pay it couldn’t vote for or against in the referendum – to bridge a deficit caused by the recession.
To be direct, Columbus appears to have become dangerously dependent on income from non-residents and businesses outside the city limits. While there appear to be good regional relations today, the edifice of regional revenue collection is being built on feet of clay. Eventually people in surrounding cities will get around to questioning these arrangements. They will start asking why they are exporting all this revenue from their residents. The leaders who negotiated revenue sharing agreements in good faith will leave office to be replaced by others who may think their town is getting played as a chump. One of these days the colonies are going to rebel.
When that happens, it could get ugly. Eventually the whole affair could become quite poisonous, as it is in Cleveland. It should be noted that in this approach to revenue sharing, Columbus is actually imitating Cleveland. Cleveland used control of the Metropolitan Planning Organization to deny permission to built an interstate interchange in Avon (which was to be paid for by a developer) until Avon agreed to a tax sharing deal. If the Columbus agreements have been less acrimonious, it likely because generally good relations exist today, the disputes are over contiguous territory, and the weapon at Columbus’ disposal is different. The results, however, are the same.
This also creates not just the seeds of regional discord, but also generates big financial incentives for people to figure out how to beat the system. If you are a surrounding town or county, you are likely highly motivated to lure regional jobs to your community, not just because that’s good in its own right, but because you can capture the income taxes that come with them and stop exporting all that revenue to Columbus. It could also promote leapfrog development to discontiguous suburbs who have their own water utilities and aren’t beholden to Columbus.
Indeed, we see a foretaste of things to come in one of these revenue share agreements. Dublin agreed to a revenue share agreement with Columbus in exchange for water service to strengthen its had in connection with an annexation battle over disputed territory with Marysville. Marysville sees Dublin getting all this development, sees Columbus using extra-territorial water service as a lever of power and says, “Why not us?” Marysville has its own water utility and is now extending it outside its borders in order to establish its claim to territory. I expect this is only the beginning of these types of disputes.
While it is busy negotiating these agreements with suburbs, Columbus’ core is weakening. The Toledo Blade did a series on the downtowns of Ohio last years. Their findings on Columbus showed that downtown employment declined by 16% between 2000 and 2005. This decline is true of all major Ohio city downtowns, but is troubling nevertheless. Columbus’ fiscal health may look ok because of all the outside revenue it is managing to capture, but ultimately a city can’t be strong if it doesn’t maintain core vitality.
Clearly the health of the central city and urban core is of concern to the whole region. Yes, central cities often have big legacy liabilities; troubled school districts, a disproportionate share of the region’s poor, and other urban ills; and have to provide roads, police, and other services to large numbers of people who visit or work there but don’t live in the city. Commuter taxes are often seen as a way to equalize this and help keep the central city strong.
I’ve always been a bit down on commuter taxes. Unless you have a one of a kind downtown like Manhattan – which Columbus does not – you basically set up an incentive for not just residential flight, but business flight. Is there a better way?
I’ve been thinking about principles by which cities might best engage in regional revenue raising and sharing. These represent a definite work in progress, but I thought I would share them:
- Try to make regional taxation truly regional and uniform across the MSA
- Avoid one way revenue transfers and bi-lateral agreements where possible
- Use regional revenue sharing to build bridges and bind the city and suburbs together around common interests
- Regional revenue should imply regional governance
- Avoid ownership claims to revenue slices where possible
How might this work in practice? I would suggest that a model might be regional taxes to support regional amenities directly. There would appear to be any number of institutions that or types of services that might apply:
- Stadiums and convention centers
- Tourism marketing
- Zoos, museums, or performing arts groups
- Transit systems
- Welfare or other social services
The idea would be to transfer responsibility for some of these items to a regional authority with regional tax support and governance. Most of these are heavily concentrated in the central city. So potentially there’s a net flow of tax revenue into the city. But there are clear benefits to the suburbs as well, and they have an ownership stake in the system. (Some services such as welfare, indigent health care, and other social services for the poor might be better simply funded by the state)
There are plenty of great examples of this around the country. Airports, transit agencies, and port authorities are commonly administered this way. MPO’s are by definition regional (though the governance of these is often very bad – the subject of a future blog post).
Of course there are potential downsides as well. Regional agencies are often run by appointed boards and technocrats, creating a democracy deficit and lack of accountability and transparency. Also, people fear losing influence over local affairs since a large and remote organization is in control. Legitimate concerns, but ones that can be addressed. The devil is in the details as always. We’ll never get it perfect and we’ll always have to fine tune and be vigilant.
Whatever the case, I think this model is better than simply expecting other jurisdictions and non-residents to keep shipping tribute back to the imperial capital in perpetuity. If it stays on its current path Columbus may one day find that it got more than it bargained for with these clever deals.
Friday, September 11th, 2009
Recession Job Losses
The Windy Citizen pointed me at coverage of metro area job losses in the recession. Here is how the 12 cities I principally cover in this blog stacked up, sorted in descending order of percentage losses:
- Detroit; 139,600 jobs; -7.5%
- Milwaukee; 44,800; -5.2%
- Cleveland; 54,100; -5.1%
- Chicago; 206,200; -4.5%
- Indianapolis; 40,200; -4.4%
- Cincinnati; 42,200; -4.0%
- Louisville; 22,900; -3.7%
- Minneapolis-St. Paul; 63,100; -3.5%
- St. Louis; 43,900; -3.3%
- Pittsburgh; 32,800 – 2.8%
- Kansas City; 21,900; -2.1%
- Columbus, Ohio; 19,600; -2.1%
A couple things that jump out of me from this are that Chicago and Indianapolis are doing far worse than conventional wisdom views of their overall economic health. Both regions are getting clobbered. The Pittsburgh story gets some additional ammunition, as does my view that Columbus is the next Midwestern star.
Recession Job Recovery
So when will the jobs come back? Nobody knows for sure, but an organization called IHS Global Insight has predicted the year in which employment will match its pre-recession peak in various major US cities (via IBJ News Talk):
- Kansas City: 2011
- Columbus: 2012
- Indianapolis: 2012
- Louisville: 2013
- Minneapolis-St. Paul: 2013
- Pittsburgh: 2013
- Chicago: 2014
- Cincinnati: 2014
- St. Louis: 2014
- Cleveland: After 2015
- Detroit: After 2015
- Milwaukee: After 2015
High Speed Rail Roundup
Harvard economist Ed Glaeser writes for the NYT Economix blog. A few weeks ago he did a four part series on high speed rail. I’d meant to do a post on this but didn’t get around to it. So here are some belated links. I think it is fair to say he’s a skeptic:
- Is high speed rail a good public investment?
- Running the numbers on high speed trains
- How big are the environmental benefits of high speed rail?
- What would high speed rail do to suburban sprawl?
Amtrak runs off the rails (New Geography)
The “Prince of Pops” Dead at 74
Erich Kunzel, longstanding pops conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, died recently at aged 74.
The Cincinnati Symphony is a well known national orchestra, but it was as the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel that they achieved their greatest popular success. Kunzel recorded 85 albums with the Cincinnati Pops, an astonishing 55 of which made it into the top 10 on the Billboard classical charts. They sold over 10 million copies and and earned several grammy awards. Truly a giant has passed.
Indy Cultural Trail Bus Shelters
The Indy Cultural Trail program announced that it will be installing three new bus shelters along the trail designed by local architect Donna Sink:
These shelters will feature the works from local poets, and are also constructed with an eco-friendly design.
@AndreaApplegate pointed me at this program the state of Ohio is launching called “Ohio Ambassadors” looking for volunteers who are willing to “tell the Ohio story”. Done correctly, this could be a big win. In fact, it is something I suggested that Indianapolis adopt at variation of, particularly for minorities. Let’s face it, if you are an ethnic professional, gay, etc. and considering a move to the Midwest, the reputation alone could give you pause. But the Midwest is already diverse today. Why not tap into that by getting local volunteers of similar backgrounds to be on “hot standby” to help show a prospective recruit around town and show him or here that there will be a community of people like them, an active social life, access to native culture, etc.? This might actually prove more powerful than any swank dinner or trip to the local sports team’s skybox.
One thing about this program that caught my eye was the concept of the “Ambassador at Large”, which is made up of, “Anybody not living in our state that has had a positive Ohio experience and wants to Share the Ohio Story with others.” Imagine that, looking at people who left as a sort of field sales force and and actual asset.
We’ll see what this program turns out to be since so few details are available. If it is just a marketing mailing list and some freebies, it probably won’t amount to much. But done right, it could have some benefits.
Powering the World With Solar
Here’s an interesting map showing the surface area that would be required to supply the world’s energy needs with solar power. I don’t know if it is accurate, but it is provocative.
Portland Creatives Find Ways to Work Together
GOOD explores the problem of what to do when there are more people who want to live in a city than jobs for them with regards to Portland, Oregon:
Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs….As I strolled the city from meeting to meeting, I realized that out of necessity, Portland is quickly finding the answers to a much greater issue that’s going to affect an increasingly freelance workforce across the country: Where are all these people going to work?
This interesting piece talks about firms opening up their office space for “co-working”, and interesting things like low cost space in converted motels turning into labs for small business startups.
Paris Metro Augmented Reality Application
One of the super-cool features of the new iPhone 3GS is the so-called “augmented reality”, where you hold up the phone and view a live picture of what is in front of you through the camera lens, with information overlaid on it.
The first app out there taking advantage of this is the Paris metro system. You activate the map, hold up your phone, and you see a picture of the street with big signs where the metro is. Pretty cool. Of course naturally they also include advertising as well. You can search for McDonald’s and Starbucks. I don’t know about you, but the sight of all those huge American logos on the streetscapes of Paris is pretty creepy.
Here’s a video demonstration. It’s in French, but even if you don’t speak the language, the pictures are worth a thousand words. So enjoy a little “réalité augmentée”
National and International Roundup
Joel Kotkin looks at world capitals of the future.
There is more tension and fallout from demographic change resulting from the surging white population of the city of Atlanta, as the CS Monitor reports how a “Memo about a ‘black agenda’ in mayor’s race roils Atlanta“. Interestingly, as a city that has long been known as a great place for blacks to live, we may be looking at the first major city in America to flip from majority white to majority black and back again. The dynamics resulting from this will be important for others to study, particularly as central cities regain attraction to many of the people who originally fled them for the suburbs, and their children. See also: “After 35 years, next Atlanta mayor may be white“.
Florida Exodus: Rising Taxes Drive Out Residents (Time Magazine via Yahoo)
Planetizen looks at toolkits and design design manuals.
Is making right turns easier always a good thing? Interesting thoughts from American Dirt.
Forbes looks at very smart cities in South Korea.
The Industrial Wonders of Northwest Indiana (Chicago Sojourn) – Great pictures. Related is “The Magic of Marktown” at the Chicagoist.
Celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the street addressing system (Tribune)
West Loop park infuses Chicago with green space (Inhabit)
O’Hare to get competition? (DC Velocity)
CTA to share bus tracker code with outside developers (CTA Tattler)
A lesson in municipal finance (Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space)
Southeast Michigan faces $35 billion deficit in road revenue (Detroit News)
Tolls may not cover Mackinac bridge upkeep (Detroit News)
Meijer sees a chance to prosper in Detroit (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Michigan Subsidies Fail (WSJ op-ed) – study referenced comes from a right wing think tank
Indiana leads the nation – in coal ash ponds (C-J)
Surprise in Indiana: A deli worth the trip (The Atlantic) – Props for the Goose; h/t UrbanIndy
Arkansas Innovation: Stunning Southern Architecture (Web Urbanist) – awesome photos of the work of Marlon Blackwell, who is the architect of the visitor’s center at the forthcoming IMA Art and Nature Park.
NIMBY’s Gone Wild (Indy Star) – My title
Tyler Allen to enter mayor’s race (C-J) – Co-Founder of 8664
Neighbors want meat plant out of Butchertown (C-J) – Ironic headline of the day. I hope Louisville keeps in mind the need to preserve manufacturing in the city.
New sectors will heat up in Louisville’s economic recovery (C-J)
Aerotropolis Redux (Smart City Memphis)
CVS store design rejected (StlUrbanWorkshop) – Attributed to “recently arrived neighbors passionate about urban design”
Friday, July 31st, 2009
High Speed Rail and Transit Roundup
Wisconsin is ordering Talgo rail cars capable of 200 MPH operation. These will be placed in service on the Amtrak Hiawatha line for now. This seems to be an effort to build HSR support in Wisconsin, boost its chances of federal funding, and to secure the US manufacturing site for the trainsets.
A mix of federal and state funding is finally getting the CREATE program off the ground in Chicago. This is designed to both dramatically reduce freight rail congestion in Chicago, and also to boost passenger service (Metra and HSR) by building several overpasses.
The CTA “Max” car experiment on the Brown Line came to a halt. This was where seats were removed to make more room for standees and expand capacity. Apparently passengers hated them. That’s why you do a trial. And I think this was definitely a good experiment to try. Kudos to the CTA for first doing it, then being willing to back track when it didn’t get the passenger response they hoped for.
The Tribune has a great story on the private rail car that runs on Metra’s UP-North line.
John McCarron writes in favor of investment in metro transit over high speed rail. (Thanks Robert Munson)
Here’s an awesome op-ed on rational public transit policy from a director of the Bay Area’s BART system. (Hat tip Human Transit)
Best Cities for Singles
Forbes has another one of their controversial lists out, this one their annual “Best Cities for Singles“:
- #3 – Chicago
- #9 – Milwaukee
- #14 – Cleveland
- #19 – Minneapolis
- #23 – St. Louis
- #24 – Pittsburgh
- #28 – Columbus
- #31 – Indianapolis
- #34 – Detroit
- #37 – Kansas City
- #38 – Cincinnati
Given the Midwest bashing of most Forbes surveys, it’s good to see at least some places here get some love.
Newspapers and Urban Culture
There was a mini-furor in online communities in Columbus about this article about dining in Columbus. The Dispatch apparently runs these type of “Where I Eat” articles profiling various locals. In this version, a woman talks about Applebee’s being her favorite restaurant, as well as saying that’s where she would take someone new to Columbus.
Now, nothing against this woman personally. In fact, I’d have to second her endorsement of Potbelly’s, chain though it might be. But there is a legitimate concern about what type of message this is sending about Columbus. I’m not saying newspapers need to be civic boosters, but what is the journalism value in something like this? And how was this person selected?
Clearly, stories like this only allow people from larger cities to have a laugh and reinforces the prejudice against smaller Midwest cities that exists out there in the world. Editors should take care to consider not just how articles will be perceived locally, but also nationally and internationally in the age of the internet. I’m sure there are many fine local restaurants in Columbus, and to cherry pick someone who says Applebee’s is their favorite place does the city a disservice.
The Louisville Metro council has to approve the creation of a new tolling authority to pay for the Ohio River Bridges Project. Some councilors who wanted to have more debate and hearings introduced an ordinance for that which was shot down. However, the recitations section had an amazing collection of facts worth noting. Here is an excerpt (hat tip Broken Sidewalk):
WHEREAS, the Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP) is now estimated to cost $4.1 Billion; and
WHEREAS, State of Kentucky traffic counts indicate that traffic in Spaghetti Junction did not increase from 1992 to 2007; and
WHEREAS, in 2008 traffic volumes declined by more than 11% on the Kennedy Bridge and by more than 5% in Spaghetti Junction; and
WHEREAS, according to the Texas Transportation Institute 2009 Urban Mobility Report, congestion in Louisville “stayed relatively constant” over the decade from 1997 to 2007; and
WHEREAS, according to INRIX National Traffic Scorecard, in 2008 traffic congestion in Louisville decreased by 39%; and
WHEREAS, six years of actual traffic counts are now available to compare to the assumptions in the ORBP 2003 Environmental Impact Study; and
WHEREAS, a November 2008 study conducted by Wilbur Smith and Associates for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) determined that an alternative which included only an East End Bridge provided the same “system wide performance” as the Ohio River Bridges Project;
There’s a lot more, but I found these particularly compelling. Broken Sidewalk also has even more great 8664 coverage. And a hot off the presses series of pictures that will either make you cry or drool depending on your perspective.
There’s plenty of talk of brain drain and people being sucked up into global cities. But a counter-trend is starting to attract notice as some become disenchanted with high costs and other hassles. And it is affecting surprising places, such as Scranton, PA, which is now growing in population again.
There’s a distinctly white-collar movement behind Scranton’s comeback. A return of college-educated natives from cities like New York and Philadelphia is fueling a population rise and a civic makeover. Bringing them back are the very small-town qualities many once wanted to escape: the likelihood of meeting acquaintances and relatives on the streets. The embrace here of modest ambition. The deeply held belief — only heightened by ridicule from the outside world — that Scranton matters.
For six decades Scranton lost an average of a thousand residents a year, many bound for college. The return of even a fraction of them — along with their families — could confer substantial economic benefits. “There was a diaspora of Scrantonians, and now we’re inviting them back,” says the Chamber’s Mr. Burke. The group has a campaign called Rediscovering Scranton, which includes a Web site with testimonials from returning natives.
A population rise of about 3,000 in the last two years, to about 75,000, has given hope that the long exodus is over. School enrollment is up to 10,000 from 8,500 seven years ago. And downtown is buzzing with the sounds of construction. A Radisson hotel is in the city’s old train station. Other recently vacant buildings now house advertising agencies, architectural firms and financial offices, many started by professionals who have returned.
Cities like Scranton lack a lot of urban amenities. While those are to some extent needed to attract people, they can also be a lagging indicator. The amenities are built in response to people moving in, and its feeds on itself. Here’s another perspective from NPR. Definitely something to watch, though to early to call a major trend. More like “green shoots”.
“Starchitecture” in Action
If you needed any more indication that starchitecture as currently practiced is past its sell-by date, check out this piece in the Las Vegas Weekly about this Frank Gehry building:
A Lesson in Skepticism
A group of people put out a hoax proposal to turn Central Park into an airport. Here’s their proposed map of the site:
This came complete with a realistic web site, as well as Facebook pages and a Twitter account.
I don’t think this really fooled anyone, but what I find interesting is just how similar to almost every real proposal the rhetoric was. For example:
New York City is the cultural and financial capital of the world. It is also our nation’s most densely populated urban area. Yet surprisingly, New York City has no viable airport. JFK, La Guardia and Newark may work for people who live in certain outer boroughs. But they are not an acceptable option for the majority of New Yorkers, requiring travel through some of the most congested traffic arteries in the nation. A journey which by train takes nearly two hours and by automobile can take up to three hours. For a place which purports itself to be the greatest city in the world, this is not a workable model.
Or this from their FAQ:
I own an apartment alongside Central Park. What will Manhattan Airport do to my property value?
History has proven that bringing a transportation amenity to an underserved region elevates the perception and economic well-being of the area. In the past, these types of transformative public works projects have created an influx of interest and new investment in the neighborhoods in which they have been built. There may be some who resist the progress. But as neighborhood residents, small business owners and local civic organizations begin to experience the economic “trickle-down” effect these types of large scale redevelopment projects have precipitated time and time again; Manhattan Airport will be embraced.
What about the environmental impact of building Manhattan Airport?
Research shows that single-passenger car-service and taxi trips between Manhattan and JFK/EWR/LGA account for up to 9% of automobile-created carbon-based emissions in the region. Reducing our environmental impact is a major concern for all of us and preliminary findings indicate that building Manhattan Airport can be a critical first step as we strive to live up to our long-neglected environmental responsibility
I think we’ve all got to admit that the arguments in favor of most projects don’t sound much more impressive than this. They are plausible stories about what would happen, backed up by research that it is difficult to independently evaluate. History has shown that our cities have built way more than their fair share of “Manhattan Airports” based on this exact type of faulty reasoning, many of which had to be ripped out later at significant cost. Of course, not everything will work out as planned and any entrepreneurial venture has high risk of failure, but we should at least look at these things with clear eyed realism. That includes, of course, even the things I’ve spoken in favor of.
Economic Development Roundup
“Unconventional Thinking” A counter-argument to convention center led economic development strategies.
“Failure is not an option; it’s essential“. Thoughts on the culture of innovation.
Failure to invest in new power transmission lines endangers the wind power revolution.
A Ball State University study says city-county mergers don’t help economies.
National and International Roundup
President Obama launches his Office of Urban Affairs.
The NYT Magazine profiles President Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.
The NYT had a great article on cities that are uncovering long buried waterways, focusing on Seoul. In previous years it was not uncommon to bury urban streams into underground channels that doubled as sewers. Now cities are turning these back into surface streams as recreational and neighborhood amenities.
Let the water wars commence. A landmark federal ruling says Atlanta can no longer draw water from Lake Lanier unless it reaches a water sharing agreement with surrounding states. It has three years to do so. This is big, big news so stay tuned to this one.
Apparently highway spending isn’t the stimulus it was envisioned to be.
The Where Blog has the best collection of High Line photos I’ve seen yet.
The New York Times is exploring whether they can implement a foundation model for news.
The latest from Brookings I’ve yet to digest: “The New Geography of United States Immigration“
Oh, and those Marxists in Toronto (they describe themselves this way, btw) who hate Richard Flordia? They now have their own web site.
O’Hare’s New Runway Improves Arrival Times at Airport and Unclogs US Airways (WSJ) – The title says it all. Keep it coming!
Chicago, City That Works? (Tribune op-ed)
Bid to raze Western Ave. overpass takes shape (Tribune) – Hmm – I don’t think I support this one. Traffic on Belmont is already a nightmare.
Changing strategy direction in Cleveland (Ed Morrison @ BFD)
Proposal for new form of Cuyahoga County government gets on November ballot (Plain Dealer)
Plain Dealer Wants to Profile from Cleveland’s Carcass (Roldo Bartimole @ Cleveland Leader)
Quicken sets mid-2013 target for new Detroit home (Detroit News) – Quicken to move HQ downtown, bring 2,200 jobs. A big win for Detroit.
Is right-sizing the right fix (Free Press) – via @GreatLakesGuy
Is it time for Milwaukee to Consider a Combined City-County Government (Urban Milwaukee)
Is it time to dissolve Milwaukee County government? (Milwaukee Talkie)
City of Steel (and other stuff) to Get Its Turn on the World Economic Stage (NYT) – G20 meeting to be held in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Scrubs Up for Visit From the G20 (WSJ)
Cray supercomputers to bring 225 employees to downtown St. Paul (Minnesota Public Radio)
Saturday, June 20th, 2009
Brookings Institution Report on Metropolitan Performance
There has been quite a bit of buzz about the Brookings study that was just released tracking the economic performance of the nation’s metro areas. Out of the top 100 metro areas in size, here is how the ones I track measured up on various metrics:
Employment Change from Peak:
- #20 – Kansas City (-1.5%)
- #25 – Columbus (-1.7%)
- #38 – St. Louis (-2.3%)
- #50 – Cincinnati (-2.8%)
- #54 – Minneapolis (-3.0%)
- #56 – Louisville (-3.1%)
- #59 – Chicago (-3.1%)
- #61 – Indianapolis (-3.3%)
- #67 – Milwaukee (-3.4%)
- #78 – Cleveland (-4.7%)
- #98 – Detroit (-12.3%)
Change in Gross Metropolitan Product from Peak:
- #21 – Indianapolis (-1.9%)
- #49 – Minneapolis (-3.1%)
- #67 – Milwaukee (-3.7%)
- #73 – Chicago (-4.2%)
- #78 – Cincinnati (-4.4%)
- #79 – St. Louis (-4.6%)
- #80 – Columbus (-4.8%)
- #86 – Louisville (-5.2%)
- #87 – Kansas City (-5.3%)
- #95 – Cleveland (-6.2%)
- #100 – Detroit (-10.1%)
Columbus, Ohio was overall ranked the best performing Midwest metro, with Indianapolis and Kansas City next to it in a narrow band.
I find the divergence between employment and GMP interesting. While a better analysis would probably look at hours worked, for a place like Indianapolis where employment dropped much more than GMP, it could be indicative of productivity gains. On the other hand, in cities like Kansas City and Louisville where we see the opposite, is productivity eroding? Employment growth and GMP per capita growth are two of my key indicators of regional economic health.
Check out the study for yourself – it’s easy reading and there are plenty of nice maps.
Top Midwest Twitter Cities
TwitterGrader has its top locations for Twittering. Here is where the Midwest cities ranked. Keep in mind, this is a global rank, not a US rank.
- #3 – Chicago (Yes, #3 in the world)
- #21 – Minneapolis-St. Paul
- #31 – Columbus, Ohio
- #39 – Indianapolis
- #44 – Cincinnati
- #47 – Cleveland
- #50 – Milwaukee
I find it so interesting that so many different measures tend to over and over again put the same handful of Midwest metros at the top. The “big four” are the Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Twin Cities, with Chicago thrown in depending on what you are looking at (it is either really high or really low, often). KC is absent on this list, but look at the top four.
As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter at @urbanophile.
On Municipal Finance
I noticed in this Q&A from Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman justifying his call for an income tax increase that 42% of income tax payers and 53% of income tax revenue comes from people who reside outside the city limits. That’s a very interesting stat. It is probably helped by the fact that Columbus has annexed heavily and thus has many “suburban” commercial zones like Polaris inside the city limits. I would credit this as a factor for Columbus’ relative success. It isn’t supporting a huge base of poor people, non-profits, non-taxpaying government institutions, and regional attractions on purely its own tax base.
Regional Economic Development
There was an interesting article in the Indianapolis Business Journal this week about the impact of the new Honda assembly plant in Greensburg, Indiana. This bit at the end caught my attention:
[Businessman Steve] Freeman said the company’s white-collar employees have settled in Shelbyville or Indianapolis.
That’s a typical pattern for factory expansions, [economist Morton] Marcus said. The reason is that potential home buyers usually are working couples. They’ll settle where both spouses can find a job.
Marcus said Greensburg may be like Kokomo. When Delphi and Chrysler expanded, professionals settled in Hamilton County.
How you look at this depends on your point of view. You could look at it as Indianapolis skimming off the highest paid workers. Or you could look at it as access to the Indianapolis labor and housing market enabling Honda to locate in Greensburg in the first place. I take the latter view. It’s the same for the plant generally. Indy didn’t lose out on the Honda plant because Greensburg got it. It was never a realistic competitor for that deal. Companies like Honda aren’t locating plants in places like Indianapolis these days. It’s similar for the people. Top professionals want to live in or near big cities, not small cities or towns way out.
What we see here is symbiosis. It’s a win-win relationship. Indiana, Indianapolis, and Greensburg all benefit. The labor force attractiveness of Indianapolis (and in this case, Cincinnati too) creates enough of a management labor pool for Honda to choose to locate the plant in Greensburg, which is great for that town and the whole region. The future of large scale manufacturing growth in Indianapolis is likely in places like Greensburg.
So often there is a disconnect between cities and smaller places that surround them. They either fail to recognize the mutual dependency that they have, or look at it as a zero-sum game instead of win-win.
I have made the case that Indiana (and other states too) need to take a new regional approach to economic development, one rooted in the centrality of large cities in the modern economy. It isn’t just a metro area economy, it’s a bigger economic solar system, with networks between these nodes extending throughout the world.
It is imperative in my view that leadership in these cities create a compelling case for why cooperation is important and sell it to the people all the time, not just when there is something – usually a central city regional asset like a stadium – that people want to regionally fund. Again, I believe the central city, as the big dog, has to lead by getting out and really trying to be of help and service to outlying communities, and make sure it is noticed. Not in a “now you owe me” sort of way, but in an “isn’t this cool” sort of way. I’m sure some of this happens today, but it isn’t well known.
Regions that figure this out are going to outperform in my view. And it is the best way to start helping outlying industrial areas that are really hurting.
Urban Contextualism and Incrementalism
There are some interesting words of wisdom in this blog post from Politics and Place:
I suppose I’ve started thinking about New Urbanism in much the same way I think about Christianity. It’s all about a question of letter vs. spirit of the law. Sure, St. Jane/St. Paul said x, y or z, but I believe both New Urbanism and Christianity suffer from a literal interpretation. We can’t be expected to follow Jacobs’ book to the letter in Duluth or San Antonio any more than we should stone our adulterers. In either case, the dangers of fundamentalism are obvious.
I believe that incremental steps away from McMansion developments should be celebrated. The majority of America’s population has been living in the suburbs for almost 60 years, it’s foolhardy to believe that they will be ready for Greenwich Village tomorrow. Changing peoples’ views about the built environment takes time and incremental steps. So while Stapleton might not be the New Urban utopia, I think it would be unfair to label it as sprawl.
I agree with this. We can’t try to transplant “school solutions” into a foreign context. We’ve got to let ideas like transit take root in the native soil. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.
Also, it’s true we are not going to turn the dial all the way immediately. Also, turning it all the way to hard core urban probably isn’t the right answer. It will take a while to change people’s living habits, attitudes, and beliefs.
Regarding New Urbanism, I think the problem is that the principles of the Charter of New Urbanism have become associated with greenfield sprawl developments, giving it a bad name in some quarters. But the “spirit of the law” as the poster said, is pretty good.
Location Still Matters
In a business world linked by electronic networks and cheap, nearly instantaneous communications, physical location shouldn’t matter.
But it does.
Aspiring editors still move to New York, home to a huge share of the nation’s trade publishers. Many musicians still pack their bags for Nashville. Would-be entrepreneurs still flock to Silicon Valley, and for those who don’t make the move, leading venture capital firms often come to them, by setting up offices in tech centers around the world to be closer to new sources of talent.
Read the whole thing.
A big challenge for the Midwest city trying to reinvent itself around industries with cluster economics is that the logic of clustering favors a handful, even as few as one, winners. The article cites the example of Facebook moving from Boston (America’s second largest tech hub) to Silicon Valley. There appear to be many financial centers around the world, but as Saskia Sassen demonstrated, these cities compete with each other far less than one would expect. Rather, they are specialized in sub-niches.
I think the points the way. Targeting a broad cluster like “high tech” is probably not going to work. Sure, there will always be some companies since this is a growth area and a rising tide lifts all boats. But you won’t become Silicon Valley. Instead, look for sub-niches you can dominate or whitespace to take over with first mover advantage.
Collaboration and Networks
Ed Morrison has another great post over at Brewed Fresh Daily. (As an aside, I hope I’m not the only one who doesn’t read Brewed Fresh Daily when I read “BFD Learning Moment”. Time for a rebrand?). He was talking about a strategic doing workshop he held in Detroit:
Collaboration is a deeper commitment than most of our participants appreciated. Collaboration is not “knowing” or “connecting” or “networking”. It is not surface. it is not simplistic. It is not easy. It is not an event.
Collaboration is a civic habit. A set of overlapping networks, quickly shared. A pattern of behavior that builds trust and mutual respect. A commitment to transparency and truthfulness. A relentless focus on experimentation, action and learning “What works”.
These features do not simply appear. They must be cultivated. They grow with time.
My impressions — taken from 60 people across the state in just one day — suggest that Michigan has a way to go. There is more grieving to do.
But more important, Michigan needs a break from its past. It’s a truism in economic development that a community or region’s civic life mirrors its underlying economic structure.
In Michigan’s case, both government and civic action are unnecessarily constrained by hierarchical thinking that no longer serves the needs of a younger generation. The sooner Michigan expands the experiments in open collaboration, the better.
This could have been written about anywhere in the Midwest, I think. Something to think about.
Chicago is kicking off the official 100th anniversary celebration of the Plan of Chicago. Design Applause has a great series of plates from the original document, as well as renderings of the two temporary Burnham Pavillions that are now, I believe, open to the public. Or at least the one by UNStudio is. The Zaha Hadid pavillion is late, I hear. A must see for the pictures.
A couple of samples:
Cincinnati’s New Logo
Drew-O-Rama points us at Cincinnati’s new city logo. Here it is:
Local chatter seems to suggest it is unpopular, and I’d have to agree. This is a pretty weak logo. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. The biggest problem is that it has absolutely nothing to do with Cincinnati. This seems to be a local mental block, as I noticed the same thing with their Agenda 360 plan and Mike Doyle noticed it with their CincinnatiUSA branding. Cincinnati acts like it is embarrassed about what it is. But Cincinnati’s a great city with so much incredible stuff most people don’t even know about. Yes, change is needed there just like everyplace else, but there’s a lot to be proud of and embraced, not rejected or swept under the rug.
Worst of all, the logo was paid for with a $75,000 donation from Macy’s. Somebody paid $75,000 for this!?!? All I can say is, wow. Nice work if you can get it. It certainly demonstrates the public spirit of Macy’s, however.
Lots of good comments on the logo here.
Must Watch Video on Curitiba Bus System
Streetfilms has an awesome seven and a half minute video on the Curitiba bus system. This is an absolute must for any city to study as it explodes the myths around the necessities of rail. It also deals directly with some limitations of the system, namely the fact that it was not designed with bicycles in mind. (Bogota learned from this). Among the lessons are 1) do it fast and cheap (see the quote at the top of this post and 2) it takes a network of services to make it work, not just major spoke lines and 3) do it incrementally. They started with one line and 25,000 daily passengers. Today they’ve got a network with 2.3 million daily rides, way more than the volume of Chicago’s CTA network, which includes extensive heavy rail.
If you don’t see the embedded video, click here. For some reason, streetsfilm videos don’t seem to work when embedded in feeds.
Yes, Curitiba is supposedly now building a subway line. This doesn’t invalidate the bus. Rather, it shows that after 40 years of work, they’ve developed an entire urban infrastructure and lifestyle that supports building subways. It also shows that, even as the poster child for busways, they aren’t dogmatic about that system, but are open to looking for the right solution in the right place at the right time.
The nation’s cities are not getting their fair share of the stimulus.
And, no surprise, the federal DOT’s standards on high speed rail say 110MPH counts. What a joke. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this in certain instances, or that you shouldn’t pay for it out of high speed rail funds. But calling this “high speed rail” is setting an incorrect expectation with the public and could ruin the high speed rail brand in the US. That article has a picture of Sec. LaHood leaning out the window of a French TGV train. But the US system will be nothing like the French one if these standards are to be believed. Setting the pubic expectations bar at true high speed rail in the European sense then delivering “Amtrak on steroids” will, I believe, do irreparable harm to the cause of high speed rail at home.
The south is much maligned, so it is useful to see what it is they are actually doing down there. Here’s an interesting interview with Don Koski, a former planner from the Twin Cities, who has been hired to oversee an ambitious multi-modal infrastructure redesign in Ft. Worth.
Featured Site: Archizoo
Archizoo is a great urbanism/design site out of Detroit. Jim Meredith is a former principal at Gensler who now runs his own practice. His blog (and his Twitter feed) is a stream of good stuff around design, sustainability, innovation, Detroit, urban policy, and much more. Definitely check it out.
Why Don’t Ohio’s College Grads Want to Stay? (Rust Wire)
A look at the CTA’s rail system (Tribune)
Re-imagining Cleveland: Audacious…or Realistic? (Brewed Fresh Daily)
Feds give $2B more for Michigan recovery (Detroit News)
Rural Michigan counties turn failing roads to gravel (WWMT)
Broader bridges bill is backed by Clark (C-J)
Sunday, May 17th, 2009
Columbus, Ohio is by far the best performing city in Ohio. In a state that has become a byword for the challenges and pain of de-industrialization, Columbus is a clear standout, with strong economic and population growth.
A lot of the analysis of what makes Columbus different from Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown, and even Cincinnati often starts out by noting all the advantages Columbus had. It is the state capital. Ohio State University is there. It was not a traditional heavy manufacturing center, and so did not have that legacy to overcome.
But what strikes me about Columbus is not all the advantages it has, but rather the handicaps it has when compared to other Midwestern standouts like the Twin Cities:
- The Columbus metro area has only 15% of the state’s population, and thus does not form a significant voting block in the state house. Compare to say the Twin Cities or Chicago.
- It is one of three major cities in Ohio (Cleveland and Cincinnati being the others), and is the smallest of them. There are also a number of mid-sized cities like Toledo, Youngstown, and Dayton. This makes Ohio an urban-friendly state, but also makes the competition for state resources intense. There is no other Midwestern state with anything like this.
- Cincinnati and Cleveland both came of age early and were giants of their ages, which endowed them with an incredible built environment legacy and many absolute top quality high culture institutions. Since Columbus lagged, and since Ohio already had these things through Cincy and Cleveland, Columbus is comparatively lacking in both regards. It is especially notable that Columbus’ high culture institutions are very weak compared to most Midwestern cities.
- Columbus does not have any of the top three professional sports team, again, probably because of the Cincy/Cleveland factor. People who think pro sports are overly key to urban success have to be able to explain away the Columbus example. It does have NHL and MLS franchises.
- Columbus has a comparatively weak central business district. It has the typical office buildings and such to be sure. But its downtown mall, City Center, is closed and will be demolished. It is not a major convention destination. Nor is downtown a major entertainment district for the city.
So you can see that there are a number of structural weaknesses working against Columbus. But the one that I really think is the kicker is the name “Columbus” itself. It is just very generic and has no brand recognition. Columbus is probably the biggest city in America where the state is almost always given along with the city, i.e., “Columbus, Ohio” versus “Cincinnati”. Say Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis and by themselves people know where you are talking about at at least something about it. But say Columbus and people probably think of a town named Columbus in their own state, like Columbus, Indiana or Columbus, Georgia. This is one area the lack of pro sports probably hurts the city badly, since cities with major league franchises are constantly getting their name on TV. (I have long endorsed viewing pro sports subsidies as basically a naming rights sponsorship, where the city pays to put its name on the team for marketing exposure. How much would it cost to buy all those TV impressions? A lot more than the cost of the team.) Heck, type “Columbus” into Wikipedia and you get back a disambiguation page.
In addition to just having a generic name shared with cities in various states, there is really nothing that would put Columbus on the mental map of the world. Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. No matter what else people may or may not know about Louisville, everyone knows the Derby and that it is in Louisville. It’s a similar story for the Indianapolis 500. But Columbus? Nothing.
I caused some pain for myself on a Columbus message board by suggesting that outside the United States, especially in Europe, Columbus, Indiana probably has better brand recognition than Columbus, Ohio and that among a certain social set if you just said, “Columbus”, the Indiana town is what would come to mind. This is because Columbus, Indiana has one of the world’s most important collections of modernist architecture by a who’s who of key architects. (It is an absolute must visit, incidentally, and be sure to sign up for the bus tour at the visitor’s center). It has an international reputation for this.
So I think in looking at Columbus, you need to be able to see its success in terms of the big headwinds the city faces in some respects. This renders its performance all the more impressive. Consider:
- The Columbus metro population is growing at a rate of 1.1% per year, which exceeds the national average. It is the second fastest growing large city in the Midwest after Indianapolis. What’s more, its growth held steady last year in a time when most cities suffered declining performance. Indy’s growth rate has eroded the last two years running, so if trends continue, Columbus will be #1 in short order. The Columbus region is adding people at a healthy run rate of 200,000 per decade.
- Columbus has net in-migration, including the rarity of domestic in-migration.
- Columbus has been adding jobs at one of the strongest rates in the Midwest. While its economy has taken a hit recently like all others, it has held up much better than the Midwest. Its unemployment rate of 8.1% compares favorably to other traditionally strong Midwest economies like Indianapolis (8.7%), Minneapolis (8.4%) and Kansas City (8.2%)
Columbus’ economy is powered by many of the same things that have led other Midwest peer cities. Columbus has a very low cost of living, an increasing array of urban amenities, and very high quality of life with regards to such measures as traffic congestion. It does also have the benefit of Ohio State University, the largest university campus in the country, which has the effect of almost making Columbus America’s biggest college town. Normally a school wouldn’t make as big a splash in a city this size, but OSU is so huge, it does. This has many positive impacts such as skewing the population younger, driving international migration, increasing college degree attainment rates, and enabling research oriented spinoffs. (It probably does act as a drag on labor force as a percentage of population, however).
Columbus also seems to have benefited from longstanding enlightened leadership. Back in the 1950′s or so, one of their mayors made a key decision. He refused to extend water service to places that did not agree to be annexed. Thus Columbus was able to expand geographically where most Midwestern cities got hemmed in. So while it does not have a city-county merger in effect, Columbus takes up a huge amount of the county, with a population in the city proper of over 700,000 people. Ohio has very favorable annexation laws for cities that control utilities. If you get utility service from a city, you can’t stop them from annexing you – and you can annex across county lines, something that Columbus has already done. While it now does have cities like Dublin ringing it in some respects, there seems to be a recognition that there needs to be room for the city to continue to grow, and from what I’ve seen, annexation boundary agreements with suburbs continue to provide more or less unlimited possibilities for Columbus to continue expanding.
The corporate community is robust and engaged. Columbus seems to have a very strong economic development mindset, and a pro-business attitude. The local corporate community has been very active in things like the development of the Arena District, and has pumped a lot of money into the downtown. There can be complaints, probably with some degree of legitimacy, that development policies are overly corporate driven, but this is true everywhere. Columbus has also notably maintained a large white collar work force.
The government and citizen base seems to be supportive of fairly progressive public policies. I noted recently how citizens of the city have routinely voted for bond levies to fund various civic improvements. Even in this recession, there was just a vote for a parks levy that is partially to maintain operations, but also partially to expand the parks. Like many cities, Columbus has a lot of overgrown country roads that haven’t been upgraded, but it is trying. Last year Columbus spend $50 million on adding new sidewalks, for example. There have been other bond issues and many of them are focused on things like sidewalks and other projects to improve the quality of the overall city’s general infrastructure, not a handful of splashy mega-projects. As I’ve long said, the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every small town in America makes its Main Street look nice. But the ordinary street is much more important. Columbus seems to get that.
The one thing that has failed in Columbus is light rail. It was voted down. Actually, I think that’s probably a good thing since while improved transit is certainly needed there, a very expensive light rail system probably isn’t a fit for Columbus.
Columbus, like most cities, has an urban core that has many challenges. There are a lot of areas of the old city of Columbus that are as decayed as any other place. But Columbus also has a lot of urban gems in its central city as well. German Village might well be the best historic district in the United States. It is truly incredible and a must visit. While the downtown isn’t that exciting, areas like the Short North and the entire continuous strip of urbanized development north along High St. through the University campus up to Worthington is impressive. There are a number of smaller Franklin County suburbs that are super-cool “old school old money” type places in their appearnce. Newer places like Dublin are starting to turn it on.
So what does Columbus need to do moving forward?
1. It needs to strengthen its brand. I wrote a lot about strengthening the brand of Indianapolis in this blog, but that city is one I know intimately. I don’t know Columbus well enough to judge what its essential character might be, but ultimately a real brand image needs to spring from the native soil. Columbus can’t be a world class city unless it is a world class Columbus. Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. Trying to graft coolness onto a place apart from its essential character only looks pathetic. I think Columbus is still stuck in a insecure phase where it is engaging in braggadocio to make itself seem like it is one of the cool upperclassmen. The best example here is the city calling itself “The Indie Arts Capital of the World”. There is actually some goodness in this. I noted the city’s relatively weak high culture institutions, so focusing on indie arts makes sense. But is this brand likely to play in Chicago? I don’t think so. Nor do I think it works as a aspirational statement since it seems at odds with local character and difficult to achieve. This won’t be easy. The name Columbus itself is a bit of a millstone as I noted. But I think it can be done. It’s going to take a lot of digging deep and working hard, and finding an inner confidence in what Columbus is as a city.
2. Infrastructure is a problem. Columbus is growing and needs to expand its infrastructure to keep up and also improve and maintain its legacy infrastructure. The problem is that key portions of Columbus’ legacy infrastructure require very expensive upgrades that will likely suck up all available funds. This will hurt it if something creative isn’t found. For example, ODOT is going to spend over a billion dollars reconstructing part of the inner loop downtown. That is desperately needed since the road is unsafe, but is unlikely to add to Columbus’ competitive advantage as a city. And that’s a billion that can’t be spent on other things. Some locals want to put caps on the freeway to mitigate the “noose effect” it has on downtown. These are very expensive and have been considered too costly to include. This ought to be reconsidered. Yes, it won’t be cheap. But cutting out every “value added” element from a project to keep the cost down means you could ultimately end up with still an ultra-expensive project, but one that has little real boost for the city. If you’ve got lemons, you need to make lemonade. If you’re going to hold your nose and fix a problem like this, you might as well pinch a little harder and do the job right so that you get some actual value out of it.
3. Improve the quality of urban design. Columbus isn’t bad, but its built environment is rather generic. It needs to improve the quality of its architecture and public space, and what’s more use design as a way of expressing its brand. This is a huge opportunity area for cities like Columbus to create a differentiated physical environment at modest incremental cost. It seems to be something that doesn’t register with people, however. Indianapolis, as I’ve noted, has some simply superb examples of design in a handful of locations – but refuses to do anything with them. I am utterly befuddled by this. Even Chicago is backsliding on this front. It’s a big opportunity area for Columbus.
4. Tune-up the economic development engine. Columbus is doing well here – it’s hard to argue with the results. But I think a pro-active scan to find some specific niches where Columbus can create sustainable competitive advantage and get the benefits of being a first mover are would be good to do. I think the future is about micro-clusters made up of many small and medium sized businesses that in aggregate will add up to what say a single major HQ or factory might have had. Only looking at general mega-clustures like life sciences is not enough. Also, OSU brings huge numbers of outsiders to the area for four years. They probably had a great time. How can the city turn the OSU university alumni network into an urban alumni network?
On the whole, I think Columbus is rocking and rolling. Because of its weak name recognition and the fact that it is in Ohio, I think it flies almost completely under the radar. But this an impressive city and one that is arguably the best positioned of any Midwestern metro to really prosper in the 21st century economy. For those of you who haven’t been to Columbus, I strongly suggest a visit. This is not a Cincinnati or Chicago like place where you will be immediately wowed by the coolness of the built environment. But I think it will surprise you nevertheless. Before you go, drop by Columbus Underground and let the crew there tell you what you ought to see and do.
I don’t have pictures of all of the cool areas of Columbus, but here are a few samples for you.
Some scenes from German Village.
Here are some shots from the core of downtown. First the Ohio State House. Yup, no dome.
City Hall (I think)
Moving a bit north to the Arena District. I like to call this Columbus’ “Downtown 2.0″. They got it wrong bigtime the first time around by trying to spread major projects like City Center Mall around in order to act as anchors. The right approach is clustering multiple types of uses in a single district, which the city did right in the Arena District.
The downtown arena is named for Nationwide Insurance, which is the prime mover behind much of the downtown redevelopment.
The Columbus Convention Center. I’m not sold on the architecture, frankly, though they made an effort to do something other than the standard box.
Restaurants in the vicinity.
The Hyatt Regency Hotel. I’ve always thought buildings like this have a bit of an Orwellian aura about them. It looks like some Eastern Bloc country’s defense department.
Moving along to the north, we get to to a neighborhood called the Short North. The one photo I have of it in my archives doesn’t do it justice. Lots of arts related businesses here.
One of those old moneyesque suburbs I mentioned is Worthington in northern Franklin County. Here are a couple snaps.
The main street in north suburban Delaware, the eponymous county seat of the fast growing county in Ohio.
My take on more Midwest cities:
Thoughts on branding from Indianapolis that are relevant to Columbus, as well as a concept brand positioning for Louisville
Thoughts on Urban Design that are relevant to Columbus
Saturday, May 9th, 2009
Happy National Train Day everybody.
CEO’s for Cities points us at an anti-Richard Florida screed written by Sean Safford. Safford is the sociologist who wrote the seminal paper “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown“, which I discussed in my post, “The Importance of Social Structures for Urban Success“. Per Safford,
The flirtation with Richard Florida has to stop. We are worried about our cities, I know. And, in the Obama-era, I know we appreciate empirical evidence. Richard Florida tugs on both of these heart strings. He’s an endorphin producer for nerdy urban planning lovers. But Richard Florida is like intellectual cotton candy. He looks so good, you want to keep going back for more. But in the end, its empty calories. And it will rot your teeth.
The Atlantic produces a cover story which must have been forwarded to me 25 times (by people, I’ll admit, who know I have such a strong reaction to him). It gets in to the zeitgeist. But in the end, what is he really saying? What are the implications of his research? It’s all correlations. There’s no mechanism driving us from point A to point B. There’s nothing which sheds light into the darkness. And more practically, nothing that a mayor could actually use to revive her city. There’s nothing there, there. But, as long as people feel like their assumptions are being supported, it will sell. That’s just no way to run things.
Reminds me a bit of this more serious critique of Florida by Steven Malanga, a long time Florida foil.
I think these conflate two different things, Florida as an academic attempting to draw conclusions about cities, and Florida as popularizer. There seems to be enormous resentment against Florida in the academic community, possibly because his ideas have become so popular. But I think miscontrues him. The best people to compare Florida to aren’t academics like Ed Glaeser or Sean Safford or anyone else, but other popularizers like Tom Friedman.
My view is that for people like this, you have to first and foremost look at them as businessmen, with their theories and oversized personalities being the products they are selling. They have found a key to making lots of money, which is to posit a single, primal force that provides an easily intuitive explanatory function for the uncertain world around us. It comforts people and reduces their angst by making sense of what is going on. For Tom Friedman, it is “The World is Flat”. For Florida, it is “The Creative Class”. (Other popular business books like those by Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Taleb probably have some of this to them as well).
You’ve got to admit this is a winning formula. They have sold tons of books, made lots of money speaking, and in Florida’s case he seems to have started a nice consultancy as well. While viewing these guys as charismatic pitchmen for overly-simplified, overly-hyped products designed to save our cities or whatever lends itself immediately to the analogy of the snake-oil salesman – and not totally unfairly – I think these guys should be admired as entrepreneurs, much as the people who are telling us how to get rich in real estate should be. They are extremely successful businessmen and part of the entrepreneurial energy that keeps our economy growing.
Guys like Florida inevitably rub people like Safford and me the wrong way in some respects. As you know, I’m all about viewing cities as complex phenomena, not simple ones. To say that a formula like the “creative class” and the “three T’” explains everything you need to know is a clear error, what Dietrich Dörner would have called reductivism in his excellent tract “The Logic of Failure“.
But I think this misses the point. The vast majority of people have no interest in wallowing in dense research papers or blog posts. They don’t have the time or interest. There is a very valid and important function being performed in taking aspects of complex problems and presenting them to people in a readily digestible format. And you know what? Florida’s notion that talent matters, and that attracting the labor force of the 21st century is critical to urban success is right on. In the short run people follow jobs, but in the long run jobs follow people. You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists. While it might seem like a truism that businesses won’t locate in your city unless you have a qualified labor force, what Florida does is talk about how the in the 21st century the skill profile of that labor force will be quite different than in the past. I happen to agree completely on that point.
To the extent that Florida has put this on the radar of civic leaders across America, that’s probably a good thing. Whether or not is it nuanced or real enough to truly inform a public policy is debateable, but I think it shows us something important and shouldn’t be dismissed.
My advice to Florida would be to find the next big idea he can popularize. He’s clearly getting past the point of over-exposure on creative class, and the hype is going to crash down on him at some point. His marketing machine cranks out a non-stop stream of blog posts, articles, books, speeches, etc., all as rigorously on message and dismissive or ignoring of anything that isn’t confirming to his world view as any corporate branding campaign. I already see significant evidence that the bloom is off the rose on his ideas as people realize no one idea could possibly be so all powerful. Take a page from Friedman or Gladwell on this and expand the message or move on to the next big thing. There are any number of big, important ideas out there in urban affairs that could use a talent like Florida to bring them to the fore.
Forbes is running a major special report called “The State of the City“. Among the articles is one with some nice coverage of the George Rickey public art installation in Indianapolis.
Fast Company magazine unveiled its list of the 13 Most Creative Cities in the World. Two Midwest cities were on it, Cleveland and Chicago.
Career Builder listed its top cities for new college grads and several Midwest places were on the list.
- #1 – Indianapolis
- #4 – Cincinnati
- #5 – Cleveland
- #9 – Chicago
Here’s an interesting article about Austin, Texas. Despite a booming core and no “white flight” type issues, it is still rapidly suburbanizing. Worth a read.
Metropolis is running a Q&A with William Saunders, editor of Harvard Design Magazine, about his new book “Urban Design“. If you didn’t see it, you might want to read my piece on the “New Discipline of True Urban Design” for more context.
A reader sent me a link to this piece on Bogota’s bus system. The mayor responsible for this, Enrique Peñalosa, is now a pretty inspirational speaker on urban issues. I’m sure there is another side to this story, however, since my understanding is that the reason he’s on the lecture circuit today is because he lost a re-election bid. Nevertheless, if you get a chance to see him speak, please take advantage of it. Great stuff.
National Journal carries an in-depth interview with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Could he be positioning for a run for President? Plenty of advice dispensed for the national party.
The European Design Show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art received a prominent review in the Wall Street Journal recently. The Journal called it a “tour de force”. You may recall that I cited the IMA as an example of strategy done right, and this coverage, along with the NYT coverage of Art Babble, are showing some of the fruits of that. These examples also illustrate a few key points. One, that a smaller city can play in the big leagues, if it focuses on the right things. Two, that it isn’t just about money. While I’m sure they weren’t totally free to put on, both this exhibit and Art Babble are certainly very affordable as urban projects go, but they got the city national coverage it would never get apart from sports otherwise. Contrast with the expansion of the IMA, which cost far more but landed with a thud. It’s not just about money, it’s about spending it on the right things. There’s an awful lot we can do with a comparatively small sum.
Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, says a small Mies van der Rohe brick building that would be demolished for a new Metra stop near IIT doesn’t need to be saved. Some preservationists are complaining, of course. I don’t know the building that well, but i looks like a tiny windowless shack to me. Probably won’t be missed. Preservationists, like all single-issue activists, are the least likely to balance the needs and goals that they care about versus the other needs and goals that our society has. The best argument in favor of saving it would seem to be that there is some semi-painless way to build around it. If you don’t have to destroy a Mies building, why do it? It’s probably worth a look, but Kamin nails it that activists should spend their capital on the things that really matter, not make themselves look like unreasonable extremists by sounding the alarm bells on questionable matters.
Russell also pointed us at a Regional Visioning Project being undertaken by Pittsburgh. This sounds a heckuva lot like the Agenda 360 project that Cincinnati undertook, so I’d suggest that they pay attention to what I wrote about Agenda 360. The Pittsburgh Business Times also has coverage of this.
Here is one I found interesting in Columbus. A referendum on a new metro parks tax levy passed. I’ve noticed that Columbus, though having big problems in its municipal operating budget – to the extent that they’ve even been cutting police officers – nevertheless seems to have a population that is willing to vote in favor of funding for increased government services and capital. There have been a number of bonds passed in recent years and the fact that this passed in the teeth of a recession is notable. The one major failure I recall was a light rail levy, and arguably that was a dubious project to begin with.
Cincinnati is holding an innovation contest, with lots of prizes to be won.
Rust Wire points us at two great videos about Detroit, as seen from of perspective of residents and neighborhood activists. They start out with a rap intro, then go to some interviews.
Speaking of videos, The Overhead Wire sends us this video someone made to tout the virtues of light rail in Kansas City:
And the CTA Tattler points us at this rap video about the CTA:
My “What’s Wrong with Cleveland” article certainly struck a nerve. There are now 128 comments and counting, by far a record, and a local online publication called the Cleveland Leader decided to post an extensive rebuttal.
May architectural events calendar (Lynn Becker)
Subsidies for movies don’t pay, state told (Free Press) – well surprise, surprise.
Detroit’s entitlement culture withers a bright, blue dream (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)
F-1 team picks Charlotte for headquarters (IBJ)
Tools for highway work: An easier pill to swallow? (KC Star)
State delays bond sale for bridges project (C-J)
Biotech’s third wave (Star Tribune)
Thursday, February 5th, 2009
The city of Columbus, Ohio is planning to demolish City Center, its struggling downtown shopping mall, and replace it with a park.
Downtown retail has always been one item that smaller cities struggled to get right. Even Chicago had many years of vacancy problems along its traditional State St. corridor and only turned it around after a massive urban core boom and significant investments of public dollars. Even today, the Chicago Place Mall on Michigan Ave is dead, with nothing much left of the tenant base beyond Saks Fifth Avenue.
Columbus, like other cities, had a proud downtown department store tradition. Lazarus, which grew into a significant Midwest regional chain, had originated there. Its downtown flagship store laid claim to a series of retail firsts, including the first air conditioned store. But as with other cities, Columbus saw its downtown department stores and specialty shops lose their allure as people and jobs decamped for the suburbs and retail followed.
Their approach to try to reverse this decline was to conceive of a downtown version of the enclosed regional shopping mall. The idea dated back to 1977, but the 1.3 million square foot City Center Mall did wasn’t complete until 1989, when it opened at a cost of $116 million. Chicago’s famed Marshall Field’s was the main anchor and the mall enjoyed initial success and high occupancy. Things took a turn for the worse when the mall was the site of the 1994 murder of a teenager, a killing described as gang related. Declined continued over the next decade plus until this year, when the city took over the mall, only a few stores remained.
What went wrong with City Center? And what lessons does it teach us? Plenty went wrong. In retrospect the surprise should not be that City Center failed, but that it lasted as long as it did. Among its problems:
- City Center was an enclosed, inward facing mall design. In effect, it was a suburban mall plopped down on city streets. This shows the type of thinking that was common in the past – and is alas still too common now – that what downtowns needed to compete with the suburbs was a similar environment because the move of people to the suburbs showed a consumer preference for that form. This is almost always a horrible mistake. Given the choice between a real suburb and a downtown trying to act like one, only with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is going to win.
- The city tried to lead with retail, when significant retail is probably the last element you need to put in place since it is so difficult to make work in a downtown setting. Think about it. Offices generate shopping traffic principally at lunch hour or maybe right after work. Downtown Columbus has an extremely thin population. And there aren’t hordes of tourists like in Chicago. So who is going to shop there? This mall was heavily dependent on the suburbanite coming downtown as a shopping destination, much moreso than other malls.
- Speaking of which, Columbus built its malls relative late. Upscale malls like Tuttle Crossing, Polaris Fashion Place, and Easton Town Center were opened after City Center. This meant that downtown had an older and less attractive mall versus the suburbs. Again, which one will win in that situation? Not hard to figure it out.
- Marshall Fields never established the true flagship store concept, and downtown generally lacked a unique retailer that would end up drawing people despite the inconvenience. Contrast to say Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Cincinnati.
- City Center’s problems were also partially caused by the regional mall as a format falling out of favor. Is anyone building new enclosed malls anymore? I don’t think so. We’ve seen a rapid innovation in new retail formats, the most recent of which is the “lifestyle center”. This renders enclosed malls yesterday’s news. In fact, we observe even genuine suburban malls across the country struggling and being redeveloped or demolished to deal with this.
- Columbus also had the unique problem of siting its mall in the wrong place. The logical place for a shopping center today would be the Arena District, where you have the convention center, the arena, the restaurants, and the proximity to the Short North. When I walked around City Center, the south side of downtown was a ghost town. If you want to have downtown retail survive, it has to be the center of the action, it can’t be the thing you are expecting to draw the action.
Add this all up and the headwinds were insurmountable for City Center. The current plan is to spend $15-20 million to demolish the mall (excluding the parking garages) to build a park, and then try to encourage another $150 million of development on the park’s edges, anchored by 400,000 square feet of office space and 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space along High St. Here are some renderings:
These look very nice. The problem is that the vision is unlikely to be realized. Why? Look at these pictures and what do you see? People – lots of them. But where are those people going to come from? 400,000 sq. ft. of office space will only put a few people there for lunch on a nice day. 70,000 sq. ft. of storefront retail won’t draw significant numbers either. This is a park that is likely to be deserted most of the time.
There seems to be a reverence for green space in cities bordering on the religious. But green space is only useful to the extent that it functions well in the urban fabric. If you take two blocks and grass them over like this, what you are really doing is just institutionalizing a vacant lot. Now a plaza or square of the European style is quite nice, but it is quite nice because those places are able to draw people. If 1.3 million sq. ft. of shops wouldn’t draw people, why will this park? That’s the great unanswered question. Plazas work in Europe because of the density of offices, retail, residential, and tourists. The activity on the plazas draws more people to be part of it, which forms a virtuous circle, but unless there is critical mass of activity to begin with, the spark will never strike. The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan. What’s more, the city is permanently taking the land off the tax rolls and since, unlike a mall, it’s a non-revenue producing asset, there is a significant operating tail to fund as well.
City officials are correct that cities have to get their public spaces right. But the key part of a public space is the public. If you don’t have people, you haven’t built a true public space. I suspect that they will be forced to program events there near continuously to fill up this space.
A downtown park on this spot might not be a bad idea for temporary land banking. But from what I’ve seen elsewhere, the minute there is grass on something, activists will jump out of the woodwork to protest anything being built on it.
I’d challenge Columbus to put their thinking caps back on and try to come up with something more creative. Frankly, that site is probably only developable successfully once there has already been other development occur in the area. I am not familiar enough with downtown Columbus to give specific recommendations, but I do think this plan has significant risk and may ultimately end up, like the mall before it, a project that in retrospect had little chance of achieving significant success.
Redeveloping suburban style structures, even when unfortunately located downtown, isn’t easy. For further thoughts on the subject, see my review of Retrofitting Suburbia.
Tuesday, August 12th, 2008
I previously voiced skepticism about the concept of mega-regions. I used as an example the cities of Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati, which are close enough geographically that they seem like a logical expanded region, yet found few practical ways for those cities to collaborate.
Well, Jeff of Daytonology turned me onto this handy web site at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that provides easy clickable access to migration data. It shows the estimated migration from county to county in the United States from 2000-2005 based on IRS tax return data. This is a standard source for intra-census migration figures. The Census Bureau has downloadable raw data files, but I’ve not found the leisure time to create a database of it.
In the meantime, I used the web data above to draw the following chart. It shows the migration between our proposed super-region of Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. For fun, I threw in Columbus.
I notice a few things. Firstly, the Cincy-Columbus flow is by far the heaviest, showing the importance of in-state ties. I wonder how much of this could be accounted for by Ohio State University? Also, the Louisville-Columbus flow is the weakest, as one would expect from the greater distance between those cities. Indianapolis is the domestic migration champion of the Midwest, and these figures show this, as Indy has a modestly positive migration balance with all three cities.
I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this. But it represents a data point to consider.