Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Indy to Repurpose Stadium Seats at Bus Stops

[ You may remember an older post of mine about how an independent urbanist group in Indianapolis called People for Urban Progress undertook a super-cool recycling operation for the roof the of the now demolished Hoosier Dome. Well, they’ve done it again. PUP has partnered with Indianapolis Fabrications and Ecolaborative to re-purpose the seating from the now closed Bush Stadium minor league ballpark for bus stop seating and other purposes. This might seem inferior for places that have honest to goodness bus shelters. But in Indianapolis there is very little in the way of furnishings at bus stops, so this is an upgrade. Kevin Kaster of Urban Indy provides this update. If you are interested in seeing more pictures and learning more about what PUP is up to, check out their Facebook page – Aaron. ]

The first Bush Stadium seats have been installed at the corner of Alabama and Vermont Streets. The official unveiling was took place at 10:00, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the event. I chatted with Michael and Jessica Bricker from People for Urban Progress, as well as Bryan Luellen, Annette Darrow, Jessica Mitchell’, and Samantha Cross from IndyGo in the hopes of finding out some more information about the project.

Urban Indy: How did this opportunity happen?

Michael Bricker: Ryan Fitzpatrick and his brother Kevin (from organization called Ecolaborative) were working with the Bush Stadium reuse people and came up to us with the idea for salvaging the seats. We also had an intern named Ryan Gallagher, whose college thesis was based on increasing bus ridership, and he believed that increasing amenities would help towards that goal. Basically, our organization was the facilitator that brought these two ideas together.

UI: Which bus stops are next in line?

MB: College and Alabama is the pilot. There are 4 other bus stops proposed. They will be at 10th and College, 86th and the Monon, Broad Ripple and Carrollton, and Fall Creek and Meridian. After that, other organizations can sponsor their own bus stops through the PUP Stop program.

UI: Is there funding in place for maintenance?

Bryan Luellen: IndyGo will maintain them. It is possible that they might become part of the adopt-a-stop program. But the seats are pretty sturdy, and they are designed to be outside, so they will not need much maintenance.

UI: Has anyone else done this?

MB: Not that we know of. Other stadium seats may be in the private domain, but these are the first to be re-purposed for public use that we know of.

UI: How did you get the city to buy off on the project?

MB: It was pretty easy, actually. We worked with Develop Indy and the developer of the Stadium. Develop Indy helped us quickly secure access to the stadium and the seats. We have to get them out of the stadium by March 2nd.

BL: Also, IndyGo pursued a license from the city to place the bench in a public Right-of-Way.

Indianapolis Transit Expansion Proposal

This week Indianapolis business leaders also unveiled a $1.3B proposal for a major transit expansion, including doubling the footprint of the local bus system and building a commuter rail line. This faces many hurdles in getting through the state legislature and then a referendum. We’ll see if this fares any better than most transit proposals in similar sized Midwestern cities, most of which have failed. Urban Indy has the story. Here’s a map of the proposed system:

Thanks so much to Kevin Kastner and Urban Indy for this contribution.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

Here’s yet another cool city time lapse video, this one from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Enjoy! (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

JSK on NBC

NBC News had a segment with Brian Williams that has drawn some fire from the urbanist crowd. I haven’t seen it, but I did see this portion of it in which Janette Sadik-Khan shows off Times Square and talks about what New York City is up to on the transport front. (There will be a short preroll add on this video. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Three Years Down, 72 More to Go On Chicago Parking Meter Lease by Michelle Stenzel

[ I’m sure high on the list of items Rahm wishes his administration had not inherited is the parking meter lease. As we just passed the third year anniversary of its signing, Bike Walk Lincoln Park reminds us what this is a about. H/t to Grid Chicago for the heads up on this – Aaron. ]

You may have noticed that we try to keep upbeat on this blog, but there’s one topic that’s really testing our abilities to remain chipper: Chicago’s parking meter lease deal. 

December 4, 2011 marks the three-year anniversary of our city council approving the deal that traded our right to collect revenue on parking meters in exchange for a large-but-not-large-enough lump sum of money. Why are we talking about this parking meter deal on a bike/walk blog? We’ll get to that. 

First, let’s review some basics (all reference links are provided at the end of the post):

  • Under the lease agreement, Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, paid the city $1,156,500,000 in exchange for the right to keep the revenue earned from Chicago’s parking meters for the following 75 years. 
  • Chicago Parking Meters, LLC (CPM LLC) was an entity formed for the purpose of the deal. The name makes it sound like a local entity, but in fact it is made up mostly of investors from Morgan Stanley and Abu Dhabi.
  • Mayor Daley’s administration had been working on the possible deal for about 18 months but pressured the aldermen to pass the proposed deal within 48 hours of ever bringing it to their attention.
  • There was no public input or review process.
  • Only two bids were submitted, and the higher bid was quickly accepted.
  • Six months later, the city’s Inspector General released a detailed financial analysis of the bids and concluded that even using conservative estimates, we should have received nearly $1 billion more than what was accepted.
  • Most of the $1.1565 billion we received from the deal is already spent and gone. 
  • We have 72 years left to go on the contract.
  • It’s grim.

According to most recent documents posted on the city’s website, as of June 30, 2011, 2.5 years into the deal, we had already spent $879 million of the money we received. It’s true that much of the money was used to pay off big debts the city had incurred in the years prior to 2008, including projects like building Millennium Park. That’s money that we owed, and paid off, and is now off the books. However, it’s disheartening to realize that three-quarters of the money from the lease deal is already spent, with 96% of the lease term still in front of us (72 more years!).

Most disturbing is that $400 million was specifically earmarked to be a “revenue replacement fund”, the investment earnings on which was to provide a steady stream of approximately $20 million a year to make up for the fact that we’re not earning that money any longer from our parking meters. Unfortunately, in 2010, contrary to the stated plan, $210 million was transferred out of that fund for other uses, so we only had $178 million left, as of June 30, 2011. That’s not going to earn enough to replace our lost parking meter revenue. Again, for the next 72 years.

But here’s the part that affects us most as pedestrians and bicyclists: Under the lease deal, the city retains ownership of the actual street, the physical land on which people park. However, CPM LLC now has the lawful right to earn parking fees on every single 20-foot stretch of curb that was already a metered parking space on December 4, 2008.

So now, if the city planners feel there’s a need to eliminate a metered parking space, they cannot do so unless they create a new comparable space nearby to make up for the lost one, or they need to negotiate with CPM LLC and pay cold, hard cash to make up for CPM LLC’s lost revenue. 

How much is each spot valued? In a very rough calculation, CPM LLC paid us approximately $32,000 in 2008 for each of the existing 36,000 parking spaces. (If this is way off base, please let us know in the comments section, or e-mail us at bikewalklincolnpark@gmail.com. (We’re not finance whizzes, just lay people with a calculator.)

So if visibility for pedestrians at a crosswalk would be improved by removing one parking space on either side of the crossing, on either side of the street, city planners now have to create four new metered spots in the area to make up for it, or negotiate and pay in the range of $128,000 in cash to CPM LLC. 

Or let’s say it would be beneficial to remove parking to install a protected bike lane on a half-mile stretch of street that currently has 25 metered parking spaces on each side: City planners would have to create 50 new metered spaces somewhere else close by, or negotiate and pay CPM LLC in the range of, um, wow, $1.6 million. 

You can see why the parking meter lease deal will make it very difficult for our current  forward-thinking planners to shape our city’s streets in order to serve the needs of its citizens. For the next 72 years. Ouch.

OK, think positive, think pro-active. There must be something we can do in response to this. Well, after receiving heavy criticism, William Blair and Company, the group that advised the Daley folks through the parking meter lease deal process, published a document defending their recommendations.

Much of the document seems like a desperate attempt to shine a good light on an all-around unfortunate situation, but one of their arguments resonated with us: The city’s residents got screwed under the lease deal — we’re paraphrasing from the report here — but only if you assume that the parking meters will continue to generate equal or increasing amounts of revenue in the future, which is not necessarily the case. It’s worth quoting from the Blair report at length:

The concession agreement requires [CPM LLC] to operate the System for 75 years, regardless of changes in population, economic activity, technology, patterns of behavior, and the myriad other factors that might affect the economic value of the System. There was no such thing as a parking meter 75 years ago — the first ones were installed in 1935. … A lot can and will change in 75 years. … There is substantial uncertainty associated with the future availability and cost of motor fuel, vehicle-sourced pollution and emissions, improvements in public transportation, and so on. Just as the application of improved meter technology may enhance the value of the System, it is also true that technological innovations may adversely impact the value of the System. For example, it may be that individual motor vehicles are replaced by other forms of personal transportation that do not require as much or even any street parking. [CPM LLC] has assumed all risks associated with declines in System utilization, including declines related to rate increases and those driven by technology, fuel costs, attractive transportation alternatives and other factors.

Did you catch the part about other forms of personal transportation? Essentially, the Blair folks are pointing out that CPM LLC will not reach their best economic outcome under the deal if “individual motor vehicles are replaced by other forms of personal transportation that do not require as much or even any street parking.” We can think of a number of forms of transportation that already fit this description: bicycling, walking and taking public transit! 

So if you want to be a good citizen and maximize Chicago’s outcome from the parking meter lease deal, do your part and avoid metered parking spots whenever you can. The money you spend locally on walking shoes, bike equipment and CTA fare stays right here in our city. Let’s minimize the gains of Morgan Stanley and the Abu Dhabi investors by choosing active transportation. Remember, every time you feed the meter, they win again.

More reading on the topic, if you can stomach it:

The Reader’s article summarizing the timeline of the deal.

The City of Chicago’s website page that has links to all the asset lease agreements, including the parking meter lease contract, as well as updated financial disclosure documents.

The Inspector General David Hoffman’s June 2, 2009 report on the lease deal (warning: this one’s particularly depressing to read). [ Note: I personally believe that the Inspector General’s valuation is off base, but this is still worth reading – Aaron. ]

Link directly to PDF of the document from William Blair and Company defending its recommendations.

Excerpt in Rolling Stone of the book Griftopia, which discusses Chicago’s parking meter lease deal starting on page 4.

Urban issues analyst Aaron Renn, The Urbanophile, discusses ways the deal hamstrings us.

This post originally appeared in Bike Walk Lincoln Park on December 1, 2011.

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Is the Indianapolis Superbowl Shuffle Video Really That Bad?

The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association created this parody video of the Chicago Bears “Superbowl Shuffle” to market the city to meeting and event planers. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). It was posted to You Tube though, and ended up provoking a firestorm of reaction locally, as people piled on saying how it was so cheesy and lame that it embarrassed the city. This meme went mini-viral, even earning some national attention, as in this particularly brutal Deadspin post.

Is the video cheesy? Yes. Then again, so was the original Bears video, of which there are tons of similar parodies out there. Watching this, I can’t believe that it was ever anything other than what the ICVA says it was: a piece of industry marketing. The whole thing is about hotel rooms, for goodness sake. On that level, I don’t think it’s that much different from various other types of promotional gimmicks I’ve ever seen. Perhaps the ICVA erred in letting it get out “into the wild,” but I don’t see how anyone could really think this was intended as aimed directly at tourists.

But I think this brings up a couple salient points of relevance to smaller cities. First, this is part of an increasing trend of people in Indy taking extreme exception to what they believe as second rate stuff. I started noticing this a few years ago when the city first proposed an extremely bland generic design for a new convention anchor hotel, and it continues to get stronger ever day, as things like this and the chorus of dissent over the dubious proposal to rename Georgia St show.

I think this is extremely healthy. Like too many cities, Indy has long lacked a strong culture of self-critique. And as is especially true in the Midwest, there’s been an acceptance of mediocrity that wouldn’t be tolerated in other parts of the country. But increasingly locals are saying no more and are aggressively stepping up to demand better for their city. This ability to self-criticize and to have a robust, engaged citizenry that demands excellence can only be a good thing.

Secondly, cities like Indy want to be taken seriously on the national stage. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now you are in the fish bowl. You’ve finally got people to pay attention to you, now they are going to start making judgements. Things you could get away with when you were drifting in obscurity get called out when you try to play in the big leagues. So second tier cities like Indy really need to, as the ICVA might put it themselves, raise their game and get a lot sharper in the face they put forward. All cities cities need to realize that to play at a higher level, they have to bring a new standard to the table in everything that they do. Especially as they aren’t going to be getting any free passes from the folks who are already in the cool kids club.

Again, this isn’t just an Indy thing. It applies to all similar sized cities who want to move up to the next level. You’re playing in a whole new league and the game is a lot tougher than what you’re used to.

So while I think the criticism over the video itself is largely misplaced, I think the overall sentiment behind it is positive. And hopefully this does let the local powers that be know that there’s a new expectation level among their own citizens. People have started to take seriously all that talk about “world class city” and unsurprisingly they are expecting the city to deliver on it. And to operate at the place it wants to, the city has to bring a level of polish and sophistication to its marketing, design, etc. that it has never had to in the past. Because to the extent that you realize your ambition to have a place in a national civic conversation, you’re going to get scrutiny like you’ve never experienced in your life. Game on.

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

How to Revitalize Your Urban Core Neighborhoods

I was down in Indianapolis the last two days speaking at a couple of events. One of them was a lunch discussion sponsored by the Indiana Humanities Council on how to revitalize the urban core of Indianapolis.

The audio of this discussion is available as a podcast and I highly recommend listening to it. I generally don’t ask people to listen to an hour of anything, much less me, but I think this encapsulates a lot of the work I’ve tried to bring out in the blog over the last few years. This includes things like finding market segments of people to attract to your city, working with your essential city character, public policy around zoning and business climate, historic preservation, urban culture and social networks, inner ring suburbs, immigration, making the sale to talent and more. A lot of the info is very applicable to any tier 2/tier 3 type city, so please feel free to take any of the ideas for yourself.

The embedded audio won’t display in Google Reader or email so click here to pull it up in a web page. You can skip the intro by clicking ahead directly to 5:00 in the discussion.

This was by design a no-prep session, so I’m not at my most polished, and I’ll admit throwing some red meat the crowd by taking a few pot shots at other cities, but hopefully you can forgive me that. In case you wonder, Michael Huber is the deputy mayor of Indianapolis. Indy Star metro columnist Erika Smith (a Cleveland native) was the moderator, and she wrote a follow-up column on the event you can read.

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Replay: Is It Game Over for Atlanta?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Tory Gattis on Social Systems Architecture and Why It Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Summit for NYC Videos Now Posted + Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

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

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

Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

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

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

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

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

Fulton Street Transit Center

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

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

Second Avenue Subway

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

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

7-Train Subway Extension

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

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

East Side Access

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Chicago: Lathrop Homes Redevelopment Public Kickoff


Children at Lathrop Homes

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

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

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

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

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

What Are the Lathrop Homes?

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


Buildings at Lathrop Homes

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


Lathrop Homes, aerial view of site

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

Problems, or Lack Thereof, With Lathrop

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

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

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

So what are the problems.

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


Intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourne

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

The Lathrop Opportunity

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

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

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

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

How You Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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