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Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Suburban Blight in Kansas City by Eric McAfee

[ This week Eric McAfee takes a look at phenomenon that is on the rise in America today - suburban blight. Early generation suburbs across America are falling into decay, bringing with them all the ills we have traditionally associated with the inner city. Eric highlights an example for us in Kansas City - Aaron. ]

Over the past century, the word “blight” has undergone a curious expansion in its denotations. It was originally a botanical term referring to a disease characterized by discoloration, wilting, and eventual death of plant tissues. In contemporary parlance, however, I suspect a far greater number of people use the term in combination with “urban”—a metaphoric reassignment of the characteristics that organic plant matter can suffer, only this time applied to non-organic human construction. So urban blight appropriates characteristics of plant disease but in a sociological form, in which the tissue of a city suffers dilapidation, underutilization, or outright abandonment. In contemporary life, it’s hard to imagine and definition of blight without at least some reference to urbanism; such is the case with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com at least.

Anybody getting this far in the essay is probably well familiar with urban blight, not just as a label for a certain condition but its physical manifestations. But does blight always have to affect urban settings or the inner city? In the last 25 years, a new type of blight has emerged in America, affecting post-war, automobile oriented, outer-city districts. It requires little semantic stretching to call it suburban blight; I can think of no more appropriate label, since it is characterized by the same disinvested conditions that urban America experienced half a century ago. But does it ever look as bad? After all, we don’t typically associate a three-bedroom house — with a big front yard and an attached garage — with decay or neglect.

While I’m sure there are plenty of other, more persuasive examples, Kansas City offers the best visual evidence I have ever seen that serious blight can afflict the suburbs in equal measure. The Bannister Mall area, about 12 miles south of downtown KCMO but still within the city limits, was a flourishing retail and residential corridor as recently as 1990, but it took a significant turn for the worse later that decade. As dead malls go, it’s a well-known one: websites like Labelscar and Dead Malls chronicle the one-million-square-foot mall’s downfall (first opened in 1980) in great detail. Needless to say, it follows similar patterns seen in metros across the country: a decline in the desirability of the apartment complexes in the area forced many of them to cater to a lower-income population. This influx of Section 8 tenants, in turn, caused an uptick of crime in the mall by the mid-1990s, scaring away shoppers. By 2000, the first of the major anchors closed; over the next six years, the other three department stores followed suit. For a few of those years, the mall managed to hang on with mom-and-pop in-line tenants. But these local businesses only chose to locate at the mall
because of significantly lower leasing rates, and by that point the mall was already over 50% vacant. The meager revenue proved insufficient to cover expenses for such a large structure, and by spring of 2007, the Bannister Mall closed completely. Various developers floated proposals for the site, the most lucrative of which was a sporting complex for the MSL Kansas City Wizards, combined with office and retail. A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) proposal helped to generate the funds to demolish the mall in early 2009, but the national economy had soured enough by that point that nothing further has materialized.

The remainder of this essay explores the current conditions of the area through an array of photos—not just the Bannister Mall, but also the extensive regional shopping cluster that once surrounded it. It is a grim site to behold these days. Here’s what the Bannister Mall looks like today:

And here’s a map of the area, in which the mall sat at the northwest corner of Bannister Road and Hillcrest Road

Sitting at Hillcrest Road and looking to the west, a motorist will see nothing more than a vast, crumbling parking lot with a pile of gravel as its centerpiece. And it goes on:

And on and on:

Very little of this parking lot is accessible these days; most has been barricaded.

The east side of Hillcrest Road doesn’t look any better. Some might argue that it looks worse: it includes several independently operated strip malls tethered to big-box anchors, the vast majority of which are completely vacant.

Because the buildings are still standing but have suffered from a decade of neglect, they enhance the feeling of desolation far more than the vacant parking lot where Bannister Mall once stood.

Sometimes its possible to guess the previous tenant, based on colors or architectural details associated with a certain brand. On the slightly zoomed-in photo below, my suspicion is that the store on the left, with the big red block as an entrance, used to be a Circuit City, which of course is now completely out of business.

Incidentally, the strip mall above is in better condition than most: as of the fall of 2012, it still had at least a few tenants:

Yes, it’s that old mainstay of struggling suburbia: the notorious Burlington Coat Factory, known in many circles as “the Grim Reaper of the retail world”. I’ve written about it on this blog before, because it’s no different in Indianapolis or Cleveland or Philadelphia or Anchorage. Clearly the corporate strategy is to locate in depressed big-box settings, which not only keeps its expenses down but improves the stores’ accessibility to its target low- and moderate-income demographics. Burlington Coat Factory’s approach, however, has become so unsubtle that many people immediately associate the retailer with poor parts of town. And since BCFs tend to survive long after other middle-income retail tenants have fled the scene, situations like the Bannister corridor in Kansas City only amplify the retailer’s potentially undeserved seedy reputation. In this particular strip mall, the only other surviving tenant was an urban-oriented apparel store whose name was unknown to me. The rest look like this:

According to the buzz online, the storefront next to the Burlington Coat Factory used to be a Wal-Mart, but it, too, flew the coop. I’m not sure I believe this though; nothing I could see suggested the appearance of a former Wal-Mart, though the magnitude of this shopping node would have made it a smart location for the world’s number one retailer back in its heyday. Here’s a distant shot of the strip mall, revealing the small remaining trickle of lifeblood in the distance:

This stretch of Hillcrest Road also offers a number of interesting outparcels, presumably used as restaurants at one time. All of them are vacant. The first outparcel that a driver will see has a familiar look:

Tropical Palms Restaurant may be closed, but the distinctive appearance of the building hints at its likely origins. I could be wrong, but the striped awnings, the brickwork, and the trim all evoke an aged prototype of Applebee’s. (Inter alia, the awnings have a greater variety of stripes these days.) It would make sense if this were an Applebee’s, since the restaurant megachain has its headquarters in KCMO. Other shuttered restaurants sit nearby.

Again, many of these outparcel structures have distinct enough design features that a good pair of eyes (or anyone familiar with the Kansas City chain restaurant scene in 1992) could discern what used to inhabit them.

Apparently Luby’s Cafeteria once had locations in the Kansas City metro; these days the small chain survives almost exclusively in Texas.

Only one of the outparcels suggested it hosted something other than a restaurant:

Continuing north along Hillcrest Road as it approaches its terminus at East 87th Street, the abandonment is most pronounced.

With an unusual combination of bold colors and a formidable size, I cannot guess what tenants this big-box contained two decades ago, though a Google Streetview suggests, from a handful of cars in the parking lot, that was still marginally occupied as recently as September of 2011. Across the street, an isolated big box shows traces of life, evidenced by the few cars parked at the far-right margin of the photo.

But, upon making a u-turn and reverting southward along Hillcrest, another strip mall on the west side of the street (the same side as the former Bannister Mall) is so derelict that all entrances have been blocked off.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of driving through regardless; the potholes would have been murder on the tires. But I could still pull into the little alcove between the access road and the barricades so I could snap a few more photos.

The labelscars left by old tenants revealed the following: a nail salon, a tax preparer, a beauty parlor, a dry cleaner—in other words, the shopping center was only attracting minor, lower-tier tenants before it closed completely, just as was the case with Bannister Mall. What’s particularly interesting to me is that, even though the privately-owned shopping plazas were uniformly derelict, the right-of-way itself—city managed Hillcrest Road—was in surprisingly good condition, and it was even undergoing some minor repairs while I was there that day.

Notice that the road is four-lane, with a median and copious turn lanes. When the Bannister Mall flourished, this was no doubt a bustling corridor, but these days a person could crab-walk down the middle of the street with little threat of contact with car. The only reason Hillcrest Road was built for such an LOS was the retail it served.

After continuing southward to return to the Bannister Mall site where Hillcrest intersects with Bannister Road, the sign for one other prominent retail pokes up above the slope.

Yes, a Kmart still survives, even as its competitor, Wal-Mart, fled the scene of the crime years ago. Such is the fate of this once mighty budget department store. Kmart has persistently failed to compete with Wal-Mart or Target, and it has only survived by clinging to Wal-Mart’s discarded suburban fragments. In 2010, I blogged about how Kmart has resigned itself to locations that neither Target nor Wal-Mart will touch; the dying old chain can only compete because there’s nothing else around for miles. Such is the case with Bannister Mall, and it doesn’t get much better at other smaller retail nodes in southeast Kansas City: about a mile east on Bannister Road, the Robandee Shopping Center is in nearly as sorry of a state. This portion of the Kansas City limits declined at the same time as the now-prosperous suburb of Lee’s Summit (pop. 91,000 in 2010) skyrocketed.

Yes, Bannister Mall and its ensuing suburban blight is a byproduct of white flight. Similar life cycles first emerged all over America in the 1950s, leaving impoverished urban inner cities in their wake. Meanwhile, the earliest suburbs, preferred destinations of the emergent post-war white middle class, are now routinely showing their age. All too often, their demographic profile is similar to the inner cities, but with a determinedly auto-oriented suburban appearance. For those of my readers in Indianapolis, the 1990s trajectory at Bannister Mall eerily parallels what happened in the Eagledale neighborhood and Lafayette Square Mall over the last twenty years. (I blogged about Lafayette Square in the same article where I explored Burlington Coat Factory, which—surprise!—is a tenant at the aforementioned dying Indianapolis mall.) In both Indy and KCMO, these auto-oriented districts fell within the city limits and fed into their already declining public school districts. The housing in Indianapolis’ Eagledale is almost identical to that in the Bannister Road corridor of Kansas City.

But the economic forecast of Lafayette Square and Eagledale still seems nowhere as bleak as that of Bannister in Kansas City, at least to me. Not only is Lafayette Square Mall still hanging on (though hardly flourishing, with about 50% vacancy), the sundry strip malls and big-boxes around it are surviving as well. None of them are thriving, and national chains have largely fled Eagledale to the suburb of Avon, just as they migrated to Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City. But the Lafayette Square district has hosted a huge variety of immigrant entrepreneurs, and now the area is known for its ethnic supermarkets, taquerias, hookah cafes, and restaurants catering to a few dozen different non-American cuisines. The city is teaming with the Department of Public Works to re-brand the area as an international marketplace. In addition, an emergent artist community has taken advantage of the cheap rents and leased an old Firestone outparcel near Lafayette Square, turning it into the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community: a performing arts space, library, community garden, and art gallery, taking advantage of the area’s eclectic demographic mix. Eagledale in Indianapolis may no longer be a middle class neighborhood, but it doesn’t look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The Bannister Mall site has stumped developers and city officials over the years, since southeast Kansas City in general seems to be evading any sort of organic re-invention. I suspect that Kansas City, generally a prosperous metro area, has its own immigrant-influenced equivalent to Lafayette Square/Eagledale in Indianapolis, but the old Bannister Mall certainly isn’t it. This variant on socioeconomic blight poses a wicked challenge. I’m not holding my breath for the hipsters or the gays to colonize it, the way they are in some of Kansas City’s formerly dying old walkable neighborhoods closer to the central city. And the yuppies won’t come in later to gentrify it either. The blight that afflicts Bannister and Hillcrest Roads has yet to reveal a treatment.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on November 30, 2012.

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

The Wars Between the States by Richard C. Longworth

It would seem impossible for Midwestern states to get any sillier and more irrelevant, but they're trying. In a time of continuing recession and joblessness, with crunching budget problems, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and no real future in sight, these states have decided to solve their problems by stealing jobs from each other.

The most recent example is the so-called "border war" between Kansas and Missouri, as the two states compete to see how much money they can throw at businesses to move from one state to the other. The focus of this war is Kansas City — both the Kansas one and the Missouri one, basically a single urban area divided not only by an invisible line down the middle of a street but by a mindless hostility that keeps its two parts from working together.

This competition is not new, but it seems to have heated up since 2009, when Kansas passed a law that lets companies relocating to the state keep 95 percent of their employee withholding tax for up to 10 years. This has lured several companies to move from Kansas City, Missouri, to Kansas City, Kansas (known locally as KCK) and its suburbs, bringing several hundred jobs with them. Stung by the moves, the Missouri KC has offered multi-million-dollar packages to keep firms, like the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and AMC Entertainment, from decamping to the Kansas side.

Top Corporate Leaders Urge Governors to Stop Poaching Neighbors’ Businesses, Kansas City Star, April 11, 2011
Businesses Stand to Gain Most in Rivalry of States, New York Times, April 7, 2011

Kansas and Missouri aren't the only Midwestern states raiding each other's watermelon patches. The governors of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, which would seem to share a common economy, have been squabbling over which state has the lowest taxes, to the point that Indiana and Wisconsin have posted billboards on their state lines urging Illinois companies to flee north or east, as the case may be (presumably passing en route all those Democratic legislators from Indiana and Wisconsin who hid out in Illinois to avoid having to vote for objectionable legislation back home.) 

In Kansas and Missouri, all this has reached the point that even businesses in the two KCs, which presumably could benefit from these bribes, have told their two states to grow up. Seventeen leading businessmen from both sides of the border sent an open letter to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, urging them to voluntarily "agree to a bilateral halt" in this "economic border war."

Nixon responded positively. Brownback basically told the businessmen to go jump in the Missouri River. This probably has something to do with the fact that, so far, Kansas has been winning most of these battles. Whatever the reason, Brownback's press secretary said Kansas would keep on poaching, because the state "needs to compete and win against 49 other states plus Europe, India, China and the rest of the world."

Well, no argument there. Except competition with "Europe, India, China and the rest of the world" has nothing to do with this juvenile job-raiding. In fact, this "border war" keeps Missouri and Kansas from competing globally — indeed, robs them of the tools they need to compete globally.

Some rational thought shows why. It's precisely these states' inability to compete globally that causes them to declare war on the folks next door.

In a global economy, Kansas and Missouri aren't competing with each other, any more than Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin are competing with each other. The real competition is 10,000 miles away and all Midwesterners know that we're losing it. The region — not just the individual cities and states but the entire region — is losing companies, manufacturing, jobs, people, congressional seats and college grads, which means they're losing the resources needed to compete in a global economy.

Clearly, what the Midwestern states are doing isn't working. You'd think they'd do what the Europeans, Indians, Chinese and other competitors are doing, which is to form regional alliances to leverage all their strengths, to maximize their economies of scale, to merge their assets in to a single world-beating economy. On a global scale, Midwestern states are tiny: there are more than 30 Chinese cities with more people than there are in all of Kansas. But as a region, the Midwest has more than 60 million people which, even on a global scale, counts for something.

But this involves political initiative. It also involves spending on education. It requires the sort of imagination necessary to recognize that the old ways don't work and a new approach — to economic development and job creation — is needed.

But governors seemingly don't get paid for imagination and, these days, they're avoiding all the spending they can. Especially, they don't get paid for anything that benefits the states next door. By mandate, they are geography-bound, forced to limit all thinking and action within their state lines. Any business they can steal from next door looks good to their voters, whether it makes sense or not. Their economic development people, who know from hard experience that this is insane, go along, because the governor signs their paychecks and, as one official told me, "governors just love to cut ribbons."

One reason this doesn't work is that poaching businesses involves giving tax breaks to the poachee. Right now, states aren't spending on the future because they're broke, and one reason they're broke is that they're giving away badly-needed tax money. The letter from the Kansas City businessmen made this point clearly:

"At a time of severe fiscal constraint, the effect to the states is that one state loses tax revenue while the other forgives it. The states are being pitted against each other and the only real winner is the business who is 'incentive shopping' to reduce costs. The losers are the taxpayers who must provide services to those who are not paying for them." 

Neither does this poaching usually create new jobs. Most of these cross-border raids, in Kansas-Missouri and in other states, involve companies just moving a few miles away across the state line — usually so close that their workforce changes not at all. People just commute in different directions. The overall impact on job totals, incomes and economic gain in the region itself is absolutely nil.

Only one person gains if a business crosses the state line, and that's the "winning" governor, who gets to claim short-term job growth on his turf during his tenure. This, of course, is why this practice continues. The payoff to the governor is immediate and gives him a boost in his next campaign. Really creating jobs in the region and restoring genuine economic growth is a long-term project that spans many gubernatorial terms and, hence, holds no charm for the incumbent of the day.

The state governments and governors, like Brownback, claim that these tax lures are necessary to draw in companies not from next door but from far-away states. If so, they aren't working. A University of Illinois study showed that there are some 300 significant corporate relocations in the United States every year, and about 15,000 different economic development organizations — state, county and local — competing for them. In other words, the odds against success are fifty-to-one. No wonder states go for a quick and dirty kidnapping across the state line.

Even when truly new investment takes place, such as the building of a Japanese car factory in the United States, the states let themselves be played for suckers. State economic development officials tell me that the company, such as Honda or BMW, simply announces that it intends to set up a new assembly plant somewhere in the Midwest. Then the company just sits back and watches the states throw money at them, trying to outbid each other with tax holidays, free land, training subsidies and other lavish gifts.

All the states know this goes on. All know they could stop it in an instant by banding together and refusing to play the game. But all are so jealous of each other, and all governors are so anxious to cut that ribbon, that they just can't help themselves.

Mark Drabenstott, in his Heartland Paper for the Global Midwest Initiative, Past Silos and Smokestacks, wrote that these recruiting incentives and other bribes account for no less than 80 percent of economic development budgets in the twelve Midwestern states. That leaves virtually no money left over for approaches that might really work.

Every economic development professional knows that this adds nothing to the Midwest's long-term growth or its ability to compete globally with China and other rising nations. The only true solution is to create truly  new companies and industries by building them from the ground up  — by investing in local education, encouraging local entrepreneurs, setting up incubators, growing business services, increasing venture capital.

This is called economic gardening, and it works. It means working regionally. It means spending money, not giving it away in tax breaks. It means planting seeds now, knowing they won't sprout until some other governor is in office.

Right now, Midwestern governors are competing not with China but with each other to see how much they can slash spending in the next few months while stealing jobs from the next state. It's easier. It makes a better headline. And it's useless. 

Richard C. Longworth is a Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.

This post originally appeared in The Midwesterner on April 15, 2011.

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Failure to Communicate: Beyond Starbucks Urbanism

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

Cincinnati Streetcar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine Kansas City

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

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

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

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

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

What About Everybody Else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Broader Urban Vision

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

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

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

Doing It Right: John Robert Smith and Reconnecting America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

Denver didn’t really invest in people and higher education. Pittsburgh did, but started decades ago. Denver has managed to attract a lot of well-educated people to the region, which is how many of the boomtowns look so brainy now. In a sense, Charlotte and other Sun Belt cities were built with Pittsburgh dollars. As long as these migrants keep coming, there is no reason to raid the public coffers. When the talent spigot turns off, then the hard choices begin and recovery is a long way into the future.” – Jim Russell

Doomsday Is Here

After several recent near misses, transit doomsday arrived in Chicago this week as the CTA reduced service by 20% after failing to get union buy-in to concessions. As service cuts made their weekday debut on Monday, I was on Chicago Public Radio discussing transit. (If you don’t see the embedded player, click here.)

For additional perspectives, here is my five part series on Chicago transit referenced in the radio segment:

See also: Chicago Transit at Crossroads.

Top Story: Silicon Valley Wants a Bailout

I only have one top story in this edition. The AP reports on troubles brewing in Silicon Valley:

The 2010 Index of Silicon Valley said the region is entering a “new phase of uncertainty” where job losses, a shrinking foreign talent pool, a drop in investments and state legislative gridlock could put its standing as the center of technology at risk……”It’s a report with a lot of bad news in it. Most years, Silicon Valley has all this good news. But this year, it’s not entirely clear when the recession ends if we’re going to be able to very easily get back. That’s not a given,” said Russell Hancock, president and chief executive of Joint Venture, an alliance of business and community institutions. The report noted that the region lost 90,000 jobs from November 2008 to November 2009, and unemployment is higher than national levels.

So what’s the proposed solution?

The region started as an area invested in the defense industry, space and creation of the Internet, and the federal government heavily funded those ventures, said Emmett Carson, chief executive and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “When the government made those investments, there were spinoffs that happened in people’s garages. People were drawn here because this was the place that certain work was going on and people were making it happen,” Carson said. He said now the government is making massive investments in biotechnology and clean technology, and local business and government leaders need to compete for that money.

Holy rent seeking, Batman! Can you believe the chutzpah of these guys? The region with the biggest, broadest, deepest venture capital pool, huge numbers of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, and enormous human capital. And these guys want a bailout? I’ve got a response to that, but it’s not fit for print.

Apparently the folks in Silicon Valley have decided they can get a better return on their money on K Street than in actual businesses. If that’s true, Silicon Valley really is in trouble.

World City Map

Our friends at GaWC recently released this interesting looking map:

I’m not entirely sure what it represents, but it looks cool!

World and National Roundup

The Guardian: The Population Crash – European demographic issues

LA Times: Korean activities target foreign English teachers – anti-immigrant sentiment in Korea

New York Observer: New York’s aging buildings.

NYT: In Portland, Growing Vertical.

Fast Company: How Sandridge Natural Gas Could Turn Oklahoma City Into an Urban Hot Spot.

Rob Pitingolo: Where We Live (a response to some of my writing).

Detroit Videos

Two Detroit-related videos present a sharp contrast. The first is a poignant documentary from the Netherlands talking about the bankruptcy of GM and the current state of Detroit, Flint, and Lansing. Unfortunately, this video does not seem to be embeddable, so you’ll have to click to visit. There will be a brief commercial and prologue in Dutch, but the vast bulk of the film is in English. This film is highly recommended. (h/t Urban Genetics).

This second video (if not visible, click here) is from America 2050, presenting an idealized version of what the future might look like, as a Chicagoan takes a high speed rail trip to see the White Sox in Detroit.

I think this is a particularly effective piece of advocacy work, showing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

The gap between these two videos is quite stark. The Transport Politic probably summed it up best in a recent post “Detroit Stakes Its Hopes for Renaissance on Transit, But It Has Bigger Hurdles.” There’s still a lot of work to do to be sure.

Indianapolis Unveils Transportation Plan

Indianapolis leaders unveiled a major proposed transportation plan that includes transit upgrades. The Transport Politic also has coverage.

Here’s a video describing the plan. (If it doesn’t appear, click here).

This is by the same person who did the Kansas City video I’ve highlighted several times. This version is an improvement over that already strong piece, because it is about an actual plan, but also because it features more diversity and tones down the references to upscale business establishments.

Kansas City “Malaise”

I’ve had Kansas City on my list of good performers in the Midwest. The region beats the national averages on most of the key performance measures I track. But local leaders have some concerns, as a report from a recent leadership summit highlights:

Area residents on both sides of the state line think Kansas City, Mo., is sick — riddled with crime, bad schools and a squabbling City Hall….[Kansas Gov. Mark] Parkinson said it was sobering to hear how poorly area residents thought of Kansas City and he feared “a malaise of mediocrity.”….Because Kansas City, Mo., is the core city, its poor image reflects on the entire metro area, making it difficult to attract and keep business and people.

Regionalism appears to be on the agenda of this business group:

“A city of 450,000 can’t provide all the amenities for a region of 2 million,” Bowser said. “We have to generate revenues across the state line if we ever dream of reaching our dreams as a region. The state-line carping has gone on too long.”

Michael Burke, a lawyer who intends to run for Kansas City mayor, said the poll’s sour regional impression of the core city didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for public service.

“People have to know that they can’t escape to a bedroom community and enjoy their great schools and lifestyles but not share in the responsibility for funding the regional amenities, like the zoo, the public hospital, and all the other things that make Kansas City the metropolitan center,” Burke said.

More Midwest

It is interesting to see that a couple of Midwest papers editorialized against high speed rail recently. This includes the Columbus Dispatch and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And the Plain Dealer carries an article about Ohioans wondering whether the new rail line will be too slow.

Also in Ohio, a high techs job plan goes on the ballot.

Chicago
Groundhog Day for Chicago’s Economy? (Bill Testa @ Chicago Fed) – Has the Chicago area lost its mojo?
Apply for a business license, loose your livelihood – only in Chicago (Laura Heller)
High speed rail could be transformative, but stations (and architecture) matter as much as speed (Blair Kamin @ Tribune)

Cincinnati
We’re plugging into the smart grid (Enquirer)
Brent Spence bridge designs down to six (Enquirer) – sounds like many people aren’t thrilled with any of them.

Cleveland
The story of the renaissance of Playhouse Square (Plain Dealer)
Youngstown makes strides towards being technical hub (Plain Dealer)

Columbus
City tallies wins, losses as it prepares new downtown plan (Dispatch)

Detroit
The future of Michigan’s cities still short changed (Free Press editorial)
Detroit plans alternate use of 92 parks (Detroit News)

Indianapolis
Indianapolis mayor reflects his city and his team (NYT)
Downtown Indianapolis: Urban Form, Suburban Experience (Urban Queer)

Kansas City
Museum to get 29 impressionist works from the Bloch collection (KC Star)

Milwaukee
Downtown history presents urban opportunity in Milwaukee (Urban Milwaukee)

Pittsburgh
Maestro pitches Pittsburgh to foreign businesses (Bloomberg)

Twin Cities
MPR may sue over light rail (MPR) – another lawsuit against the central corridor
Decentralization dulls metro’s edge (Star Tribune editorial)

Post Script

Car meets bus shelter in Chicago.

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

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 city as an interaction platform (The Mobile City) – via @endlessCities

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.

Architect Robert Venturi slams Barnes Foundation move (LA Times)

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)

More Midwest

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.

GOOD interviews Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. For those who missed it, you can see the video I did with him over on You Tube.

Chicago
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)

Cincinnati
Museum tax will shrink no matter what (Enquirer)
Bringing street vendors to life in Cincinnati (UrbanCincy)
Metro sees 11.25% drop in ridership (Enquirer)

Columbus
Impressario with an iPhone (Dispatch)
Welcome! Don’t mind our blight (Dispatch)

Detroit
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)

Indianapolis
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.

Milwaukee
Milwaukee seen as hybrid hub (JS)
The New Face of Downtown Milwaukee (Urban Engagement Weekly) – via @Twoaday

St. Louis
Stimulus stirs work on Eads bridge (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities
Southwest light rail line moves ahead (Star Tribune)

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Other Side of the Tracks

If you like Midwest Miscellany and would like to have more good links, I suggest subscribing to Reconnecting America’s daily email blast called “The Other Side of the Tracks”. It focuses on transit oriented development and is an interesting collection of 6-12 of the best pieces from around the web that day. To subscribe, just email info@reconnectingamerica.org and ask to be added.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

A reader emailed me an interesting response to my open thread about the best and worst Midwest characteristics. It was about my personal pick of the active discouragement of the pursuit of excellent as the worst characteristic, and some of the reactions that spawned. Here’s an edited version of the note:

I subscribe to Salon.com, and yesterday there was a little essay by Garrison Keillor, who, as you may know, had a stroke recently [he's fine]. Point being, it made me reflect a little more on the Midwestern mindset and how close he gets to capturing it. It’s the place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Don’t know if you’ve been a fan of “A Prairie Home Companion.” I read “Lake Wobegon Days”, which was and is to this day, IMHO, the best description of the best and worst of the Midwest mindset I’ve ever found.

The point is the “Lake Wobegon Effect“. Wikipedia describes it as “the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.” The article, with citations, goes on to say, “The effect has been found repeatedly by many other studies for other traits, including fairness, virtuosity, intelligence, and investing ability, to name a few. It is similar and may be related to in-group bias and wishful thinking.”
Got me thinking about this in terms of Midwestern cities and the Midwestern mindset — under the surface modesty, there is a quiet smugness and complacency — arrogance, even — the Lake Wobegon Effect — that overestimates the quality of Midwestern life. As you and some other commentators have pointed out, Midwesterners are quick to blame external forces for the demise of their cities, which is entirely consistent with a core conviction that we in the Midwest secretly feel ourselves JUST FINE — maybe not quite as smart or modern as the coastal folks. But certainly better than average. Yes, we have our problems, always have, always will. But don’t focus on the negative. We never claimed to be PERFECT — just above-average. Whatever our problems, we’re better off than most, and, when you come right down to it, things are, basically JUST FINE. We get Gentlemen’s C-pluses.

Which, when you think about it, is all anybody should want, because if you get too big for your britches or think TOO BIG, you’re sure to get a comeuppance. Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered. Pride goeth. Etc. We’re not show-offy, always drawing attention to ourselves like the over-achievers. The quarterbacks, prom queens and class valedictorians all must have “something to prove.” They’ve got to be over-compensating for something we have that they’re missing. Only logical explanation. They’re the type who gets all worked up about things instead of appreciating what’s right under their noses. They’re belly-achers with Bad Attitudes who won’t ever accomplish anything because they don’t respect how Things Get Done Here. Why, they can barely hide their scorn for their neighbors, the rest of us. With such a superior attitude, their subscriptions to the New York Times (don’t think we don’t know) and their worrying about things going on in places that don’t affect us at all, who’s going to vote for them? Who do they think they are, anyway? Or, they’re day dreamers who come up with Big Schemes rather than do what everybody else does, which is Work Hard — Work Hard and Save. The ones who sing “Over the Rainbow” instead of feeding the hogs. You know what they lack? COMMON SENSE. They don’t understand that if this new idea of theirs was any good, somebody would’ve already figured it out and put it in place. They just don’t get it, that, in this town, IF YOU BUILD IT, PEOPLE WON’T COME; They’ll stay away to make a point — or maybe show up once, just for a good laugh. And you know what? The prom queens and valedictorians, the know-it-alls with the superior attitudes who want to change things just for the sake of being different — they usually come to a bad end. They’re never satisfied, they get divorced, they lose their business, their kids get dangerous ideas and end up on drugs or pregnant. Or they move away (another form of coming to a Bad End), which is fine with us. They never really did belong here. Probably best for all if they do move somewhere else.

And yet, these are the people who are going to show up with casseroles and jello molds when somebody in your family gets sick. They’re the ones who can spot a phony a mile away, and are There When You Need Them. Aargghh. These are the people whom Dorothy missed so much that she clicked her heels and gave up Oz and Technicolor to return to. (Wish the “Wizard of Oz” had been one reel longer. Would love to know if Dorothy lived to regret her decision. Wonder if she settled down happy, tried to challenge Miss Gulch and start her own broom factory, or ended up trying to conjure Glinda nightly and pray for another cyclone.)
If you haven’t read “Lake Wobegon Days”, think about doing so. In it, Minneapolis figures as Sodom [read: NYC]. The tension that gets set up between the good decent, hard-working people in Lake Wobegon, and those who leave for Minneapolis and return from time to time with foreign uppity strange ways, dubious morals, get-rich-quick schemes and all the rest of it — good and bad — you’ll really get a kick out of it, and, perhaps, get a better handle on articulating what it is that makes us love this region enough to get so damn exasperated by it.
Also brings to mind the lyrics of the great ode to the Midwest — Professor Hill’s “Mothers of River City” number in “The Music Man”, using the pretext of the pool table in the community as a basis for starting the boys’ band (for which Hill will provide uniforms and instruments) — “List’nin’ to some big out-a-town Jasper, hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’. Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse! Like to see some stuck-up jockey’boy sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!”

Of course, “Music Man” is the success story that your blog keeps rooting for — out-of-town slick salesman comes in ready to fleece the locals with some fancy, useless ideas. Local intellectual dissident, the librarian, with her Dangerous Books is naturally seduced by the guy, too foolish to see through the scam. City Fathers and Mothers set out to expose the the rip-off and protect the populace. So far, not looking good. But, somehow, miraculously, the good values rub off on the outsider, Marion the Librarian is exonerated, and the town ends up with the damned marching band and a parade. Template for your happy ending. Toledo is saved!

The Next Youth Magnet Cities

The Journal ran an article this week that made the rounds asking six experts to pick the next “youth magnet” cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was an utterly conventional wisdom list: DC, Seattle, NYC, Portland, Austin, San Jose, Denver, Raleigh, Dallas, Chicago, Boston. Did the Journal really need to convene a panel of experts to come up with this list? Why not ask six random people off the street if you aren’t going to go off the menu, as it were.

Are these really the big stories of tomorrow? As we see from bubble mania and other things, humans have an incredible tendency to simply project present trends indefinitely into the future. The reality of change has a way of sneaking up on us, however. Jim Russell is right to call this “yesterday’s news”. What matters is where the hockey puck is going.

I’m not surprised, but also not discouraged, to see so little Midwest representation on the list. I happen to think the future is one of wide open possibilities. Tomorrow’s winners are yet to be chosen.

Wisconsin Bio-Tech Boom

Wisconsin is doing so well in bio-tech that Minnesota is very concerned about falling behind. This prompted the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to do a two part series on it. Part one is called “A bio border battle“.

Wisconsin has become the regional biotech equivalent of traditional high-tech powerhouses like Boston, Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, thanks to strong political support, an influx of investor capital and what is arguably the most formidable university technology transfer program in the country.

“Wisconsin is a very exciting place,” said Peter Bianco, a former executive with Nerites Corp. and a current scientific advisory board member at Flex Biomedical in Madison. “You just get this sense of forward motion. Wisconsin is doing something right.”

The article gives a slew of facts, including noting that since 2007 three biotech spinoffs from UW-Madison sold over over a $1 billion – more than the combined total of the 107 spin-offs from the University of Minnesota in the past 25 years – and that the UW research park currently houses more than 115 companies.

The second part is “Badger state’s biotech boom“. It talks all about the streamlined and entrepreneur friendly IP policies and processes of the University of Wisconsin. Definitely worth a read.

Detroit to Demolish Lafayette Building

Perhaps there is something wrong about valuing the fate of buildings over that of people. Yet most of us cannot helped but be moved by grand expressions of the human spirit, often given corporeal form in the great buildings created by civilizations of all ages. Often our grief is greater for lost architecture than for lost peoples.

Detroit has one of the best and largest collections of pre-war skyscrapers anywhere in America. It is simply one of the 2-3 most important. Yet so many of these buildings have fallen victim to neglect and demolition, as they are functionally obsolete and market demand will not support renovations.

The latest victim is the Lafayette Building, scheduled for demolition soon. It is the twin tower structure in the background:

Here’s a shot of some roof detailing:

Yes, this building is in terrible condition. There are actually trees growing on the roof which led to much of the damage. This interior shots will give you a sense of how bad a shape the building is.

If you want to see more, just click this flick search link.

I understand that in a place like Detroit hard choices have to be made. But the loss of historic structures like this isn’t just a loss to Detroit, it’s a loss to America and the destruction of a piece of our shared heritage. And for the city, this isn’t just a loss of the past, but of the future as well. As we look across America at where urban revitalization has happened, it is often historic areas. Detroit is facing a challenge unlike any other. But I’ve got to believe that the answer doesn’t lie in demolishing precious historic buildings like these.

More coverage on this demolition is available over at Detroit Blog.

Time: Assignment Detroit

Time Magazine is already filing stories from their new Detroit bureau. Here is a link to their series home page. And here are some selected pieces to give you a sense of what they are up to:

The New York Times took a look at Time’s effort in a piece called “Time focues on Detroit, a city sicker than journalism

More Detroit Agriculture

The Toronto Star has a major piece on urban agriculture in Detroit called “From Motown to Hoetown“. Here’s an excerpt:

“Detroit might seem an unlikely champion of urban agriculture, as the birthplace of the automobile and its farm-devouring offspring – urban sprawl.

But, it has become ground zero for North America’s local food movement.

Last year there were roughly 550 gardens in the city’s urban farming network. This year there are more than 850.

Driving around the city, you can see everything that will make up your dinner – chickens, goats, mushrooms, plum trees, honeybee hives. I passed a whole block growing shoulder-high corn. A horse grazes outside a barn behind a high school. Edith Floyd parks her tractor behind her house – 12 kilometres from city hall, where bureaucrats are scrambling to catch up with the collard greens sprouting on street corners.

Here, a locavore doesn’t eat food that’s travelled 100 kilometres. She eats food that’s travelled 10.

“I picked these this morning,” Floyd says, carrying a laundry hamper filled with watermelons to her stand at the Wayne State University farmers’ market. The chalkboard propped in front reads “Grown in Detroit.”

The article also talks about a person who is looking to do full blown industrial agriculture in the city, though he is running into neighborhood opposition. I think again goes to show that there are some possibilities for the future that exist moreso in Detroit than in any other city.

I’m also interested to see the intersection of urban agriculture with more traditional inner city concerns like food deserts, neighborhood empowerment and social justice. When you look at it through this lens, it is not hard to imagine agriculture as a catalyst for bringing together whites and blacks in a city where racial healing is a prerequisite to civic renewal. You think of terms like local agriculture often in terms of upscale whites buying their organic regional produce at Whole Foods and farmers markets. But in Detroit we also see it as a vehicle for African American empowerment. Can these two very diverse groups somehow find ways to collaborate and start building relationships? It will be interesting to see.

“We’re not just into farming. We’re into community self-determination,” says Malik Yakini, one of the leaders of Detroit’s nascent farming movement. The self-described “social architect” runs an Africentric school and chairs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He talks about food justice – where the community reaps both the nutritional and financial rewards of the food it buys.

His D-Town Farm spans two acres of city parkland on Detroit’s western edge, where little bungalows with rusted awnings still line wide streets and a faded ice cream truck does laps of the yellowing boulevard. The volunteer team running it sells its leafy greens and radishes to local restaurants and farmers markets. Next year, it plans to hire two permanent employees.

“We’re trying to create an economic model, to show how agriculture could contribute to the economic recovery of Detroit,” Malini says, pushing into the brush to reveal a plastic greenhouse where oyster mushrooms will soon grow.

Stay tuned. (h/t @gosner)

Kansas City Arena Turns Profit

Here’s one you don’t see every day. Kansas City is about to get a check for $1.8 million in profit sharing from the Sprint Center arena. The arena was built with the idea that KC would attract an NBA or NHL franchise, but that has proven elusive. Interestingly, the lack of such an anchor tenant actually means the arena itself is profitable. As the article puts it:

“When it comes to visitors, concerts and gross revenue, the building, from that standpoint, is an overwhelming success,” he said Tuesday.

Leiweke said the strong, concert-fueled profits at the arena during the fiscal year that ended July 31 means AEG can be more selective about pursuing an NHL or NBA franchise for the facility.

Any professional team would likely demand big chunks of the facility’s revenues from luxury suites, concessions and sponsorships. That would cut the arena’s ultimate profits.

“The economic model of this building is quite successful,” said Leiweke, who was in town for a preseason NHL match Tuesday night between the Los Angeles Kings, owned by AEG, and the New York Islanders.

“The last thing we or the city want to do is throw away that model and make the arena a loss leader with another tenant,” he said.

“It’s a tougher scenario with a professional team,” he added. If there were a team there now, “I’m sure we wouldn’t be able to write a check to the city for $1.8 million.”

While landing a professional sports team as an anchor for the arena remains the ultimate goal for AEG, Leiweke said the presence of a team also could diminish its popularity as a concert venue. Now, the arena has an abundance of options to offer concert promoters.

The team’s games at the arena would remove up to 50 dates from the calendar and also would likely put much of May and June on hold because of potential playoffs, Leiweke said.

“We want an anchor tenant, but the right tenant and the right time,” he said. “We’re going to have to be patient.

“There’s a lot going on with both the NBA and NHL … I think it’s best for us now to stay focused on keeping this a great arena, and the leagues will sort themselves out over the next two years, and when the time comes, we’ll seize the opportunity.”

It’s rare that you ever hear anyone publicly state that an arena is designed to be a loss leader for a community. Kansas City already has two professional sports franchises, which for a city of its size is probably enough. They already get the branding and entertainment benefits of pro sports. It is worth it for them to go for the trifecta? Is there another region as small as KC with all three major leagues?

National and International Roundup

GOOD Magazine has an interesting look at rethinking cities.

Sid Burgess gives us his “7 Blunders of Sidewalkdom

Six key lessons from Portland’s urbanism.

Squeeze on tax rolls set to tighten in Atlanta. (via @OtisWhite) and Atlanta Beltline feasibility rises to the forefront.

Oklahoma city MAPS out big plans. Yes, OKC too wants to build a downtown mini-Millennium Park.

The Guardian asks whether California will be America’s first failed state.

Long Island’s Changing Face (NYT). Article on immigration to Long Island.

In parched Los Angeles, the streets suddenly run wet (NYT)

Here’s an interesting piece on the high percentage of non-natives in Seattle. This is a huge difference versus the Midwest and explains a lot. (h/t @OtisWhite)

The Guardian: Gordon Brown signals commitment to high speed rail

Unplanned cities could be the future of urbanism (via @GenslerOnCities)

More Midwest

The Columbus Dispatch has a database of Ohio stimulus projects.

Midwest Home takes a look at Lustron homes. (via Worth Your Attention)

A Louisville blogger compares his city’s biking infrastructure with Indianapolis. (via The Indy Cog)

Chicago
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: America’s Finest Orchestra (The Telegraph)
Architectural review of the Trump Tower (Blair Kamin @ Tribune)

Cincinnati
About Cincinnati and how I ended up there (Walking Green) via VisuaLingual

Cleveland
Cleveland Orchestra to establish New York residency (NYT)
The Gay Games are coming to Cleveland in 2014 (Plain Dealer)

Detroit
More minorities leaving Detroit (Detroit News)
Michigan is singing the white collar blues (WSJ) – via Rust Wire
In defense of Detroit (Forbes)
Five one way tickets to Michigan please (Jeff Bocan @ Huffington Post)
Detroit mayor’s tough love poses risk in election (NYT)
Can Detroit stop the bleeding? (Jeff Gerritt @ Free Press)

Kansas City
Kansas City has lost top three convention (KC Star)

Milwaukee
Milwaukee lands federal grant to develop water cluster (BizTimes)

Pittsburgh
What’s at stake for Pittsburgh? (Bruce Katz)
Google CEO: Pittsburgh’s economy a model for others to follow (Post-Gazette)

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Replay: Kansas City’s Edifice Complex

[This post originally appeared on January 12, 2007]

One of the trends firmly entrenched in the urban development and arts world today is to spend a staggeringly large sum of money to hire a star architect to design a new building for local institutions. Cities and donors have long had an “edifice complex” so I suppose this isn’t surprising per se, but the scale of some of these investments is interesting. It also highlights how architecture as a discipline seems to be a thriving. Indeed, most of these projects are primarily about the architecture and building more so than the contents. Perhaps nothing shows better the success of architecture as a field today as the willingness of communities to invest huge amounts into it – often in stark contrast to the actual on the field product that the buildings are ostensibly designed to host.

This well-illustrated by the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. This multi-purpose facility will cost $365 million and will house the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Ballet. Of course it has a “statement” design as a deliberate attempt to put the building – and Kansas City – on the map.

But when you contrast the cost of the facility with the annual budget of the institutions that will be housed there, some troubling questions arise. The Kansas City Symphony has a budget of around $9.1 million. This puts it well below the top tier of US orchestras. Peer cities such as Indianapolis and Cincinnati spend about three times this amount. Other peer cities come in at double this amount. The Kansas City Ballet budget is around $4.5 million and the opera’s budget is $3.3 million.

Add these together and you get $16.9 million per year as the three major tenants combined operating budgets. Compare that to the $365 million cost of the building, and you begin to wonder. The principal amount of the building cost would pay for the entire operating budget of its three tenants for 21 years. More to the point, a $365 million endowment that earned 5% per year in income would generate over $18 million annually – enough to fund the three organizations in perpetuity, with change left over for other things.

It’s clear that the people of Kansas City value having a nice building over having world class performing arts. Of course buildings are always going to be popular civic investments. But the sheer scale of this price tag versus the relatively small budgets of the organizations contained therein raises serious questions about the priorities of the people in Kansas City (and by extension, the residents of other cities with similar projects underway) – and illustrates just how far below architecture classical music and ballet really stand.

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Mega-Regional Reputation and Other Midwest Miscellany

NCR Leaves Dayton for Atlanta

There was terrible news for Dayton this week as the city’s last Fortune 500 company, NCR, founded locally in 1884, announced it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta. The Dayton Daily News is the place for complete coverage.

This is bad news not just for Dayton, but for the state of Ohio and the entire Midwest. Firstly, it illustrates the plight of the smaller cities of the Midwest, the ones below one million in metro area population that I usually don’t write much about. These cities, including places like Dayton, Youngstown, and Toledo, are often struggling. Unless they are a state capital and/or home to a major state university, they just don’t seem to have quite the scale necessary to operate in the globalized economy. These cities have special challenges and I won’t profess to have answers for them.

Secondly, this is further damage to the economic reputation of the Midwest as a whole. Loyal readers know that I’ve been skeptical of cross-regional collaboration as a panacea (though I’ve also written some positive things about it). However, there are clearly issues that affect the Midwest as a whole. It has, for example, a collective reputation as the Rust Belt that probably only Chicago is able to overcome.

This reputation creates formidable brand headwinds in trying to attract the talent needed to compete in the 21st century. The Atlanta Business Chronicle had an interesting take on the NCR move, with one anonymous source attributing it to talent issues with Dayton. “They [NCR] can’t recruit talent to move to Dayton, Ohio.”

So what, you might say. It’s Dayton. But my town is way cooler than Dayton. Well, the problem extends well beyond Dayton. Consider Ann Arbor. If any city in the Midwest can claim to be a winner in a the knowledge economy, it has to be the home of U of M, the best public university in the Midwest. But according to an article in the Journal, “Despite Ann Arbor’s educated work force, employers here find Michigan’s reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.”

In short, this thing affects everybody. Even the best regional performers will be fighting horrible brand headwinds as long as the region in which they are embedded continues to fail. It’s like a larger version of what I’ve long said about the Hoosier State, that there can’t be a long term prosperous Indianapolis without a prosperous Indiana.

The lessons of Dayton and NCR are not being lost on people locally and around the state at least. Local blog Dayton Most Metro asks, “Are we ready to wake up yet?

And a columnist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer chimes in with a call to arms for his city.

When Ohio cities lose storied corporate birthrights to the likes of Beijing, Calcutta, or even the green fields of Ohio suburbia, I understand potentially insurmountable market forces at work.

But when we continue to lose to the likes of Georgia, I only recognize underperforming leadership and a criminal failure to anticipate market realities.

In trying to understand the meaning of it all, we should reflect on the somber and lonely sentiments of a Dayton Daily News editorial that noted Wednesday that the city is now on its own.

Closer to home, Cuyahoga County continues to inch closer to its civic funeral. Not only do we continue to bleed off population and shutter what is left of our industrial base, we continue to act in a predictable political fashion that hastens our day of reckoning.

The inability of Cuyahoga County officials to agree on government reform tells the world that Northeast Ohio continues to be no place to do business. Like Dayton, our region remains a corporate cherry-picker’s fantasy.

Soon there will be nothing left to govern in Cuyahoga County.

Technology Rankings

The Milken Institute this week released their “tech pole” study of which metro areas are technology hot spots.

Ed Morrison over at Brewed Fresh Daily put up this nice map:

This study operates on something called “Metropolitan Divisions”, which for some places is the same thing as the metro area, but some big cities like Chicago and Detroit are split into multiple of them. That explains constructs like Lake County-Kenosha. Here are how my Midwest cities stacked up on the top 50:

  • #14 – Chicago
  • #17 – Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • #31 – Kansas City
  • #33 – St. Louis
  • #41 – Indianapolis
  • #45 – Columbus

Milwaukee, Louisville, Cleveland, and Cincinnati did not make the list. Detroit’s core region didn’t either, though the north suburban Warren MD clocked in at #30.

On a related note, Joel Kotkin asks if your city is safe from the tech bust.

Cities Where It’s Good to Be Goth

Even Gothic Beauty magazine is getting into the ratings game, publishing their “Dark Cities 2009″ survey in the most recent issue. Here are where Midwest cities came in on the top 25:

  • #4 – Chicago
  • #6 – Detroit
  • #9 – Cleveland
  • #12 – Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Columbus, Ohio got an Honorable Mention.

Downtown Kansas City ROI

Seeking to determine the results from its downtown redevelopment efforts, Kansas City measured its increase in in city income taxes downtown between 2001 and 2008. According to the study, tax revenue is up by 69% downtown versus only 18% city wide. Also up, business license taxes by 49%, as well as major increases in sales, restaurant, and hotel taxes. The article doesn’t say whether rates increased on any of these, but I’d be shocked of they hadn’t on the hospitality side. Overall, revenue is up 46% downtown vs. 33% city wide.

Among the drivers of this are a new IRS headquarters with 3,000 permanent jobs and 5,000 seasonal ones, and a new H&R Block headquarters with 1,600 employees.

Hat tip BlogKC for this article.

Indy and Indiana Get Nice Profile in The Economist

The Economist has an article profiling Indiana this week. It praises the state’s transition process to to knowledge economy while acknowledging the major challenges it faces. It is pretty good at talking about various regions of the state. Here is what they had to say about Indianapolis:

Unlike blighted Detroit, Indianapolis is a lively centre, with sports stadiums and a fine symphony orchestra. Each year the Indy 500 car race draws 300,000 visitors. Mr Daniels, meanwhile, is an excellent manager. He earned the state its first AAA credit rating and has sought new firms by keeping taxes low and investing in infrastructure. Though every state wants to be a hub for life sciences, Indiana really is one, home to pharmaceutical giants such as Eli Lilly and medical-device manufacturers such as Zimmer. Life sciences accounted for 23% of all job growth from 2001 to 2007.

Zoo Interchange Price Tag Shocker

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation wants to rebuild the Zoo interchange in Milwaukee at the astonishing cost of $2.3 billion. That’s not a misprint.

I’m all in favor of investment to improve our highway infrastructure, but something seems out of line here. To put this in perspective, INDOT is widening 11 miles of I-465 on the west side of Indianapolis, including full pavement reconstruction, and full interchange redesign and reconstruction, including two freeway-freeway interchanges. The price tag on that project is a much more reasonably $550 million. Other than the underpowered I-70 interchange, which was reduced to an inferior option to keep the project on budget, this is a pretty much first class project, with very nice, beautiful overpasses, ped/bike infrastructure, etc.

I’d say some a lot more detail is required to explain why this project is so out of sight pricey.

Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine is a neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati that has an amazing intact stock of historic buildings in an incredibly dense urban fabric. If fully developed, this area would equal many thriving Chicago neighborhoods in density. It has been decayed for many years. For at least the last 15 it has been predicted to be the next hip neighborhood in town, but has suffered many setbacks, not least of which was a high profile race riot in 2001. The area appears to be on an upswing today, so we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, here’s a five minute video Urban Cincy points us at talking about the neighborhood, its history, and above all the community and people who live there today.

For those of you who don’t have time to watch the video, here are some teaser pictures that Urban Cincy took of the area recently:

Another Impossibility City

This time it is Evanston, Illinois, which wants to clamp down on the Latino dominated industry of alley scavenging. This is where people in trucks roll through alley looking for scrap metal or other recyclables that people have left out for them.

This is like the ultimate win-win. People get rid of trash for free. Entrepreneurs who may not other wise have good options for earning money get paid. And stuff gets recycled. All done on a profitable, economic basis. What’s not to love?

Apparently the city doesn’t like competition to its monopoly trash hauling service. They feel they are missing out on revenue from the special fees they impose on residents and businesses to get rid to special items. Color me unsympathetic. The city is raising the specter of theft, but as someone who lived in Evanston for 3-4 years, I never once had a problem like this. Everybody knows that in the city you put something out in the alley when you don’t want it anymore and it either gets taken for reuse or recycling, or the city picks it up. It’s clearly a smoke screen. Let’s hope sanity prevails here.

Selling Transit

The Overhead Wire posted three commercials that were used during a referendum campaign to repeal a transit tax in Charlotte. These are extremely effective and demonstrate that a good sales job is a probably one of the reasons Charlotte got its rail system built. These are 30 seconds each. If the embedded videos don’t show up, click here

Perspectives of Denver

To see what a non-Midwest city is doing, let’s check out this outsider’s view of Denver by Greg Heller.

He’s very impressed:

I spent the past few days at a conference in Denver, Colorado. And, I’ll tell you, that city impressed the heck out of me. It’s a medium-sized city (just under 600,000 residents), and you can walk across its downtown in about twenty minutes. While the scale is much smaller than my hometown of Philadelphia, Denver seemed to be doing things other cities are only dreaming of.

Denver has a beautiful and efficient light-rail and bus system. The 16th Street pedestrian mall is vibrant, beautiful, and well-used. A free (!) two-way bus system runs every few minutes to take passengers across the fifteen blocks of stores, restaurant, entertainment, benches, trees, lamps, and chess tables. They also have bike sharing!

Cherry Creek and the Platte River run along the west side of the downtown with an extraordinary set of walking and biking trails. At the confluence of the creek and river, one encounters beautiful Commons Park and a stunning vista of the skyline. The gorgeous Millennium Bridge takes pedestrians from Commons Park to the pedestrian mall. The scenery is beautiful, all the while, surrounded by the Rockies.

The architecture definitely impresses. I am not usually a Daniel Liebeskind fan, but his Denver Art Museum is stunning. The new, edgy buildings of the civic center mix well with the historic architecture of the state capitol and other older government buildings. The Denver Convention Center is also a pretty exciting building (yes, that’s a big blue bear pushing against the wall).

Everywhere I looked there was major public art. This is a city that clearly cares about creating a beautiful place for its citizens and visitors. Meanwhile, a host of new condo and apartment buildings are filling in the landscape, bringing more residents downtown.

But he also notes the challenges:

As I walked for hours around and outside Denver’s central business district, it was clear that despite its stunning success stories, Denver has a long way to go. The landscape quickly transforms from urban to suburban. Walking east out of the downtown, I saw the thriving center morph into a landscape of check cashing and fast food restaurants. Even downtown there is not all that much there yet. Parking lots still dot the urban landscape.

As is true anywhere, all is not sunny in Denver. The city has seen new challenges arise over the past 15 years. The city’s foreign-born population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000. However, only about 8% of Hispanics in Denver hold a bachelors degree, and the city’s poverty rate is about 18% for individuals. Meanwhile, the state of Colorado had major job loss in the beginning of the 21st century. Denver is facing serious issues of inequality between the minority and white populations, a need for more jobs and affordable housing.

More Midwest

Chicago
City losing war against sight blight (Tribune)
A nice profile of CTA president Richard Rodriguez (Red Eye)

Columbus
Small enhancements can make a big impact downtown (Dispatch)
Chase to add 1000 jobs
(Dispatch) – Remember what I said about Midwest BPO?

Detroit
Day of infamy (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
GM bankruptcy is epic fall (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Ford gives model for recovery (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

You’ve probably read this already, but Richard Florida has a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, along with a companion interview. And there’s an interesting interactive map with it too.

Oh, and since I wrote about high speed rail recently, here’s a USA Today article that suggests President Obama already sees high speed rail as one of his legacies. Apparently Rahm Emmanuel was instrumental in getting $9.3 billion for high speed rail put into the stimulus.

Here’s a tough one from St. Louis – and alas around the country. Transit ridership surged last year, but transit systems are cutting back because of the economic downturn. St. Louis is axing service at 2,300 bus stops to save money.

Transit in Chicago is funded, apart from fares, mostly by a mixture of sales and transfer taxes, both of which are getting hammered by the economy. This creates yet another financial crisis for the agency, with a projected $213 million deficit. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. (Commentary on this from Chicago Carless).

Here’s an interesting story. People promoting an extension of the South Shore Line from Northwest Indiana to Chicago want to do their own population projections and not rely on figures from the Indiana Business Research Center. I don’t think this is such a bad idea. I don’t know if the IBRC has been the source or not, but I’ve seen some studies where the population forecasts where far too low. On the other hand, people doing studies need to be sure to rely on objective figures and not commission “home cooking” for their project.

INDOT received a Record of Decision from the FHWA allowing it to proceed with design and implementation of the US 31 freeway upgraded in Hamilton County north of Indianapolis. Definitely a needed project that overall looks like a winner. I previously reviewed the SDEIS in depth. My biggest concern is that INDOT again has reduced cost by down scoping the most important interchange. They reduced the US 31 to I-465 movements to single lane flyovers. Heck, even the I-74/I-465 west leg interchange uses dual lane ramps. I’m all in favor of looking for ways to save money, but would suggest that major freeway-freeway interchanges is not the place. It’s a similar story on the Accelerate 465 project. The most critical interchange at I-70 was significantly downscoped.

Here’s a bit of thoroughly depressing news. The city of Indianapolis is pressing ahead with plans to reconstruct Broad Ripple Ave. despite that fact that everyone knows the project is sub-par. The neighborhood strongly opposes the current plan and it seems to me more or less like a $2 million waste of money. I’ve noted before that Indianapolis has a horrific street system for pedestrians. It is facing a gigantic backlog of needed repairs. Given that, why spend precious funds on projects that don’t advance the ball? The street network of Indianapolis is conceptually obsolete and no longer meets the needs of the city in the 21st century. Figuring out what the streets should be, then designing projects that get us there, is exactly what is needed. (I should note that in this case, I would not agree with the BRVA’s call for bike lanes through the core commercial district. Wider sidewalks are most desperately needed instead).

The city council of Columbus, Ohio approved a budget with major service reductions, which includes reducing police office headcount by 80. Now Columbus just did a major bond issue for things like sidewalks and trails. I’m all in favor of that stuff, but if you’re taking cops off the street at the same time, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I realize capital and operating and two different things, but this is still an interesting juxtaposition.

An excellent commentary on historic preservation from Urban Milwaukee. Oh, and speaking of Milwaukee, a local university did a very nice study on city condo dwellers. And lastly out of Milwaukee, an attempt at an open source think tank called Cream Citizen.

Here’s an article about a study touting Michigan’s success in bioscience. Sound familiar?

After getting shot down multiple times, transit advocates in Kansas City are taking light rail off the table. Here’s a quote from the article:

“The city is set up for cars. As a result, most of the metropolitan area is not densely populated. That, plus a wealth of affordable parking, decreases the number of potential transit riders. And that has made it difficult to win federal dollars for rail systems. Kansas City has about 30,000 parking slots in its central business district, according to a 2008 city parking study. On average, it costs about $7.90 a day to park downtown. Compare that to other cities with rail — in Minneapolis it’s $15 and in Dallas, $12.50. ‘Abundant cheap parking is one of transit’s biggest enemies,’ said Ken Kinney, the HNTB consultant working on Kansas City’s light-rail plan. Generally, an average of 6,600 to 10,000 people per square mile is needed to score federal funds. But Kansas City isn’t close to that number along the 14-mile route that voters rejected in November. In fact, consultants predicted it would average only 3,600 by 2030. Traffic isn’t bad enough. Regional planners say bad traffic sends people in other metro areas screaming for alternatives to driving. All the big cities with rail — Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis — have terrible congestion problems. Our traffic problems just aren’t at that level — yet. ‘We don’t have the market demand fueled by congestion,’ said David Warm, executive director for the Mid-America Regional Council, which coordinates transportation planning here.”

Again, sound familiar? The same is true in every similar sized Midwest city.

UrbanCincy has an interesting article on the Cincinnati Agenda 360 plan. I may do an in depth look at this in the future.

Richard Layman covers the story of bike share vandalism in Paris.

The Youngstown shrinkage experiment continues to garner coverage. Here’s an article from the Next American City. Speaking of that site, they had another interesting column questioning the return to vogue of large scale demolition and land clearance in our cities.

Bruce Katz of Brookings talks about a national Office of Urban Policy. (via CEO’s for Cities)

An article on the all too common theme of the middle class squeeze in a global city. This time from Tornoto. Another study hits the same theme in New York. This is a very serious problem for the country and world. We’ve got to figure out how to create a broad based economic success in the globalized economy. It’s an absolute social imperative.

Here’s some intelligent commentary on the emigration of the talented – out of India. Having seen how a robust diaspora community can power the domestic economy, India definitely gets it on this stuff. They are actually trying to take an objective look at the pros and cons of people leaving. (Hat tip Burgh Diaspora)

It’s OT, but here’s a wacky story from the NY Times about some still outstanding municipal bonds dating to 1868.

More Midwest

Chicago
Going for the Gold (Medill Reports) – PS, It’s `L’, not ‘el’ – go back to New York
No transit overhaul in city’s Olympic bid (Tribune)
Wal-Mart figures time is right for Chicago push (the Journal)
Pedestrian deaths are up in Chicago despite safety measures (Tribune)

Cincinnati
Zimpher takes SUNY job (Enquirer)
CSO Recording gets a Grammy (Enquirer)
CSO Musicians agree to pay cut (Enquirer)
Green tech lab coming downtown (Enquirer)

Columbus
A world up qualifier. In Ohio. In February. Cool. (NY Times)

Detroit
Bad roads getting worse (Detroit News)
One leader sees a green future for Detroit (Free Press)

Indianapolis
Speed limits trail the pace of growth on I-69 (Indy Star)
Muncie-Indy commuter rail feasible (Indy Star)
$3.5 billion, 200 feet deep, 20 miles long, 15 years (IBJ) – I thought this was supposed to be $1.6? Will America’s cities survive the Clean Water Act?

Kansas City
Lyric Opera making changes in economic downturn (KC Star)

Twin Cities
Minnesota’s red link? $7 billion (Star-Tribune)
Mileage tax, not gas tax, may pay for Minnesota’s road work (Star Tribune)
Twin cities home values fell 10% (Star Tribune)

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Miscellaneous Musings

With Barack Obama on deck as president, the implications for cities aren’t that clear for me. But one thing is. Namely, Chicago’s chances of landing the Olympics just went up several notches. In fact, I think you’d have to say it’s Chicago’s to lose. I’d probably say Madrid is a better candidate city, but with London getting it in 2012 and Barcelona having recently gotten it, I think that knocks them out of the running. And with the Olympics would come much needed federal aid for the CTA.

Moving over to Kansas City, voters overwhelmingly rejected a light rail tax. I’ll have much more on transit later. Piling on, a citizen satisfaction survey showed large declines in satisfaction with city services. Scores on 32 different services declined, and the city scored below suburban areas and below peer city benchmarks. I actually applaud this survey. Benchmarking yourself and others, and publishing the results to really hold your performance to account to the public, is extremely admirable. The raw results are worth reading by interested parties in other cities, since it conveniently includes numbers for Des Moines, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis among others so those cities could use it to benchmark themselves.

Meanwhile in Indiana, a famously arch-conservative state, voters overwhelmingly came out in favor of change. Consider:

  • Barack Obama carried the state, tipping it blue for the first time in eons. The county-by-county view still shows a sea of red, but Obama carried the day overall, particularly in the urban areas.
  • Mitch Daniels was re-elected governor by a huge margin, despite pushing through highly controversial measures such as observing daylight savings time, privatizing some social service agencies, and leasing the toll road.
  • Despite a major tax revolt last year, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved an initiative to finish the capital upgrade of basically all schools in the district.
  • The bulk of township assessors, including all of them in the Indianapolis area, are on the way out, their offices completely eliminated, thanks to the voters.

Back to transit, there 32 measures on the ballot for transit funding nationally, and 72% of them passed. Voters approved a total of $75 billion in new funds. The full list is available, but here are some highlights:

  • State of California – $10 billion for high speed rail
  • Los Angeles County – $40 billion for miscellaneous transit projects.
  • Honolulu – $3.7 billion for elevated commuter rail
  • Seattle – $17.2 billion for miscellaneous trail transit projects.

The Midwest approved virtually nothing. In addition to the major Kansas City defeat for light rail, St. Louis also rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to expand its MetroLink system. Every approved Midwestern ballot was in small communities and/or for small amounts. Milwaukee voted in a 1% sales tax increase, but half of that is for property tax relief, and transit is only one of the beneficiaries of the remainder. And this was only an advisory referendum anyway.

Remember how I talked about the failure to learn from examples? Why is Seattle prosperous and the Midwest declining? Is it the rainy weather or the horrific traffic bottlenecks? I don’t think so.

The Midwest is behind, and it is falling further behind. Put aside for a minute California, where numbers can easily get big because of the size of the state. Just consider Seattle. We’re talking $17.2 billion for a metro area of only 3.3 million people. Contrast this with the Midwest and it is laughable. Chicago only needs $10 billion to bring the CTA up to good operating condition, but the state can’t get a capital program passed. Chicago has one of America’s most famous transit systems, but it isn’t being invested in.

Kansas City, with almost 2 million people, shot down a $700 million program. Rail transit has also failed in Milwaukee, Columbus, and Cincinnati. In Indianapolis and Louisville, they’ve never even gone to try to get funding.

Anyone who reads this blog know that I’m not “railigious” by any means. I’m a huge fan of public transit; I love to ride trains personally; but there has to be a business case. Seattle may be over investing. And I think that if you are going to build a rail system you need to face up to the reality that it is not a congestion reliever and that it requires many public policy changes, often difficult ones, and serious trade-offs to make work. Still, when you look at the 21st century economy and the long runs trends, it is clear that transit is something many places are turning to. When you consider the boomtowns of Denver, Charlotte, and even Atlanta and Dallas, you see robust transit systems.

Does anyone in the Midwest even want to compete? Do they want to be in the game? Apparently not.

Lastly, I’ve praised Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana repeatedly on this blog, so it is only fair to note that he’s got major egg on his face. The Keystone Ave. roundabout interchange project can’t be completed for $90 million. It will required another $50 million to get done, and the city council isn’t sure it wants to give it to him. Also, the Performing Arts Center is $45 million over budget. It isn’t unusual for public works projects to run over budget, but these are way over budget. I’ve posted before that I thought $90 million was light. It was even lighter than I thought.

I still think both of these are excellent long term projects. I suspect both of them will get done. However, these financial problems are going to hamstring the mayor and the city’s ability to get future projects done, and there’s still a major backlog of arterial street improvements that are needed. Carmel’s roundabout and roadway improvement program is one of the things that really sets that city apart and is why it is likely to having long term staying power while its neighbors like Fishers will probably start hitting problems the minute they are built out. In the meantime, traffic is bearable because of the city’s investments. It would be a shame to see this road building program come to an end, but it may end up a casualty of these overruns.

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