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Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Bye, Bye, Barcelona

City Lab pointed me at this documentary called “Bye, Bye, Barcelona” that describes that city’s increasingly love-hate relationship with tourists as it starts to choke on the sheer volume of visitors, which increased from around 1.7M/yr in 1990 to about 8M in 2013. The city is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the Mediterranean, and up to seven huge ships can dock there simultaneously, disgorging their passengers into Las Ramblas or Sagrada Familia. This video must have struck a nerve as it’s been watched over 200,000 times. It if doesn’t display for you, watch on You Tube.

Here’s a bonus bridge construction time lapse. It’s from Southern Indiana where the bridge across the Ohio River at Madison was replaced by building a new span on temporary piers, demolishing the old span, then sliding the new span onto the old piers. Here’s a time lapse of the slide operation. If it doesn’t display, watch on You Tube.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

The Changing Face Of Chicago (1963)

You’ve no doubt seen many posts already about the 80,000 vintage newsreel type videos uploaded to You Tube by British Pathé. The biggest challenge with these is that no human being can possible process that quantity of material. But it’s fascinating and you could probably spend many a day watching these things.

I’ll share a few highlights today focused on Chicago. First, one I found via Ben Schulman. It’s a 1963 video called “The Changing Face of Chicago” and can be viewed on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display.

Listening to the narrator brag about the “27 urban renewal projects under construction” can inspire perhaps horror or laughter. But what it should spark is humility. I’ve little doubt that 50 years from now, the many earnest urbanist videos and policies put forth with equally as much dogmatic fervor and certainty will be the subject of future generations’ puzzlement. My own blog may perhaps be an exhibit.

We need to have a sense of meta-narrative about progress. By that, I mean that we not only need to understand the ways in which we’ve changed or grown vs. the past, but also keep an awareness that we’re not done yet and that in the future we will have gone beyond where we are now. We should never commit the fallacy of believing we’ve reached the apex of our understanding in the present.

Whet Moser also put together a collection of Chicago entries over at Chicago Magazine.

Here’s a fun one of his from 1939 called “Chicago Cycles.”

Here’s one from 1922 (silent) of riots in Chicago with police arresting “anarchists.”

And from the some things never change file, video of a 1938 snowstorm.

There’s plenty more so search and enjoy.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Los Angeles Union Station: Looks Great And Works Well, Too! by Robert Munson

This is part of the series North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable or Not?


Photo of welcome desk looking into the grand waiting room on the right and the former ticketing hall on the left; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Let me recap the theme of this series: to compete against the car and win over commuters, stations must ease connections between modes. How LA does this matters, nationwide, for it helps build a strategy that breaks transit out of today’s trap of red ink and taxpayer dissatisfaction. Transit’s case ultimately is economic… and often too technical for the public. LA proves this. To solve both challenges strategically, let me sketch the big picture and put station planning in the economic perspective of there being no money; so, it must be earned.

  • Enhancements for passengers also should give taxpayers value.
  • Taxes are leveraged if car usage fees also are raised to help pay for enhancements.
  • This starts to level the field for overall transportation subsidies and makes transit choices rational in each commuter’s time-cost equation.
  • Each commuter’s rational choice of transit also increases farebox which bumps the public’s investment in transit toward fiscal (operating) sustainability.
  • This creates the positive cycle that eventually earns sufficient public investment for transit systems.

This June 6th, revisions to LA Union Station’s (LAUS) long-term plan were released. On balance, they improve what is already quite good. The flurry of questions about the Plan need some quick transcendence so LA can refocus on its startling transportation transformation whose plot-line is really about reducing the car’s role as the culture’s pig. LA Union Station’s plans are an important supporting role.

Score: 70 (click for full scorecard)
Category: Environmentals Only (click for all currently reviewed stations)

The Sizzle: Why Good Looks Really Matter

What is most important about LAUS is it reminds me that good looks help… particularly when competing with the allure of cars.

Graced with good makeup on an elegant frame, LAUS is perched in the 4th spot on my list of America’s best-looking grand stations. (For the record… the others are Grand Central, Philly’s 30th Street, and DC’s Union Station.) Their good looks correlate to their having this series’ best scorecards for functionality and integrating different modes.

And if you doubt the value of good looks, consider Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union stations…and how they got ugly. As policy came to favor cars, these stations’ owner (the nation’s largest railroad) entered bankruptcy and creditors forced a hasty sale of both stations’ air rights. This resulted in demolishing their good-looking, spacious concourses in the 1960s. Both stations since have functioned poorly; unable to expand as ridership grew. Both have the worst scorecards in this series.

LAUS fortunately learned the lesson. Now owned by the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LAUS has started improving its looks. And its functionality correlates well with the best stations.

Those previously-mentioned neo-classical piles were finished by the 1920s. LAUS opened in a different era in 1939. LAUS signaled that railroads had transitioned their trademark to Moderne design. Yet the beauty of LAUS blossoms by blending this early modernism with the region’s historic native and Mission accents. If you search out the refined and exotic, LAUS gives you this eye candy.


Attached to LAUS, the formerly famous Fred Harvey restaurant was a destination for star-gazing. While underutilized today only for banquets and occasional film and photo shoots, this hall is being renovated as a first step to making the station a destination again. Photo via herecomestheguide.com

To complement the above serene scene, the LAUS waiting room manages to be both grand and intimate; welcoming all to the nation’s capital of entertainment, glamour, sun worship, and, even, mid-century modernism. In visiting over five dozen central stations throughout the world, I have yet to find a waiting room that I prefer more to sit and contemplate different cultures as the reason why I travel. It helps to sit in a great chair.

Great waiting rooms welcome and make good-byes better. In sum, this waiting room glorifies train travel.


Waiting room. Photo by the author

Seventy-five years later and countless appearances as a film backdrop to tell personal stories, LAUS endures as cool, yet intimate, highlighting memories and marking milestones. Perhaps this explains why America’s most-populated county chooses this station as a primary destination for wedding photos.


Photo via Furious Photographers Blog. See Furious Photographers main web page.

This photo emotes me several ways. At a transit point of entry, we see two former immigrant families having arrived at America’s larger destination: adding dynamism, owning a piece of the pie and, we can imagine, prosperously so as small entrepreneurs. Better yet, we are achieving the transition from the industrial era’s melting pot to President Carter’s vision of “a beautiful mosaic.” This photo celebrates LA’s diversity and exuberance… at a train station… in the city that celebrated cars like nowhere else. Consider this photo as a metaphor for the metamorphosis to sustainable transportation.

And this point is worth remembering: these people — and ten million like them — will pay taxes to LA’s transit resurgence and are helping exceed ridership goals on many of its lines.

The Steak: How LAUS Works Well

For integrating transit modes, LAUS coordinates well eight transit modes well within two portals connected by a passageway, albeit long. All playing nice are inter-city rail and bus, suburban rail and bus, urban bus and BRT, and urban light rail and a subway. As an example of how good Angelenos have inter-connectivity, consider where it is worst. Chicago’s Union Station makes its customers walk three blocks (add bitter cold four months a year) to enter the nation’s second largest rapid transit system, while urban buses add to the chaos of the station’s streets, creating a hostile environment for the station’s most used mode, walking – often with luggage.


Happy to be back in LA, the author took this photo from the East Portal that looks into the central passageway connecting, after 180 paces past 12 tracks, to the light rail and, then, 120 more to the historic station.

While the above mural pays homage to those people who will pay taxes and fares for generations, this central view also captures how efficiently LAUS integrates transit’s modes. If this were part of my daily grind, I’d enjoy passing through this glorious sunlit space. Built in 1995, the East Portal is becoming one of my favorite post-modern pieces anywhere.

Behind where I stood for this photo, there are 9 urban and suburban bus berths in an efficient circular pattern that is outdoors. (Unusual environmentals for a bus station.) Passengers are guided from the passageway through the portal’s lobby and under the bus circular via a garden-like arroyo; complete with fountains to climb stairs into the circular’s center to wait at one of the nine berths.

Ten paces to my left is an artsy entrance to the subway terminus for the Red and Purple lines. (A second entrance is in the historic station). LA’s most-travelled Red Line starts here and runs through Hollywood while the Purple Line serves close-in parts of Wilshire Boulevard, LA’s chief commercial corridor.

Straight ahead in the photo are 12 tracks; 3 are for Amtrak trains, 7 more tracks terminate six Metrolink lines and 2 through-route Metro’s Gold light rail line.

Four hundred feet to the left is the El Monte Busway station that serves as a center for LA’s growing Bus Rapid Transit ridership.

So roughly within an average of about 100 paces, an overwhelming majority of commuters can connect to the next mode in their commute.

Moving LAUS Forward

I’ve described modal connections briefly so you see my summary: LAUS works well now. While there are claims of passageway congestion at rush hour or minor problems in bus operations that drive the Plan’s grand changes, LAUS’s most important goal is to get on a fiscally sustainable path.

For example, Metro’s data (page 13) project a mere increase in LAUS bus traffic of 1.5% per decade through 2040. Despite conventional buses being marginal to transit’s growth, the revised Plan wants to build a consolidated bus terminal within a decade.

For now, I suggest setting aside mid-term plans and get the short-term right. Staring at the mid-term gloom of insolvent governments, LAUS should do the small things that get the short-term right. I propose four tactics:

  1. Better utilize the current building
  2. Make through-routing more economical than where it’s heading
  3. Propose that Amtrak build its own station in the longer term
  4. Create a redevelopment structure for the station and its surrounds

1. LAUS should show it can “walk” (utilize the current building) before it tries to “run” (invest in a new building.)

LAUS is the last successful major station built in North America. Seventy-five years later, we have forgotten how to build these. Besides, we are broke. It is too early — and perilous for taxpayers — to dream too big right now. Here are three simple steps to show taxpayers that cost-effective improvements will help LAUS passengers enjoy their experience so they want to return.

a. Make a public campaign around improvements and use it to explore themes for LAUS as LA’s latest, best urban center.

Comments about the revised Plan indicate the public’s skeptics are on the offensive. In part, this is because capital proposals — in general — are suspected of being tax hikes. But, the larger part is LACTMA has narrow marketing goals.

Among recurring weak marketing, an example was during my third study visit (March 12, 2014.) Workers were restoring two of the three large public spaces: the former Fred Harvey restaurant and the former ticketing room. Done by May 3, the station’s official 75th birthday celebration, the restorations are first steps in the spiff-up so LAUS can evolve toward a destination. Yet, I saw no sign telling this to passengers. Because I like rooting around, I did find a list of cosmetic improvements on Metro’s website.

Since this involves public monies, there should be a prominent Schedule Of Future Improvements that gives passengers a clear picture of the changes. Put posters wherever relevant. Assume people want to know what is happening to their station. And instead of the 75th Anniversary being weighted toward the past, the PR team missed an opportunity to test themes for future campaigns.

To compete with the best, the global center of LA could learn from London. Read this message to patrons of a Underground station in a poor neighborhood. A simple sign can make Angelenos believe their temporary inconveniences are part of something big.


Photo by the author

If the Mayor of London (a Conservative) can show concern to the inconveniences of poor people, then LA’s adoption of a better customer attitude can be an early stepping stone to transit economics that work as well as London’s.  

b. Make a suitable Light Rail entrance.

The conversion of the platform closest to the historic station to light rail should give reason to pause. The Gold Line light rail is projected to have 47% more riders by 2040. This is one-third more growth than LAUS will get from the far more expensive and capital-intensive subway extensions. So if the Gold Line is so economical and important to the future, why does it have such an un-inviting entrance below?


Only two signs indicate the Gold Line entrance/exit before ascending to the platform. Note how the lightly-used elevator dominates the station. Author’s photo.

Instead of almost hiding the entrance, why not announce it with anticipation by using a gold signage theme starting at both ends of the passageway? And where are the signs indicating when the next Gold line train leaves? Metrolink lines have them.


Why not put a second Gold Line entrance/exit here? All other platforms have two. Photo by the author

To counter the impression that I am a LAUS partisan, these two photos capture one of LAUS’ few design botches. All train platforms were designed in the 1930s to have two entrance/exits that flow passengers into this passageway. Instead of a second ramp to the passageway, the Gold Line got the above wall. The Gold Line station is the only major addition to LAUS in this Century and it is a botch. I’d like to know why this wall can’t be broken and the platforms above re-extended to make a second, better entrance/exit to the light rail system.

Once they get this correct, I’d feel better about LACTMA using tax money to convert the passageway into a spacious concourse as now proposed in its long-range Plan. In fact, use the remake of the Gold Line station as a way to prove to the public that a new concourse will end up as a good investment.

c. Upgrade the passageway and install moving walkways.

LAUS rush hour crowding is laid-back compared to Manhattan’s Penn or Chicago’s Union stations. Nonetheless, increasing traffic at LAUS could crowd the passageway within two decades. Instead of the proposed concourse, consider a cost-effective solution: within a year, a moving walkway could help handle rush-hour capacity. Prominent in sprawled airports, moving walkways would tell rail passengers they’ve got status.

I propose putting the moving walkway between The Gold Line and historic station. Visualize this using the Signage Plan photo for improvements proposed (below.)

Don’t forget marketing…. Imagine this passageway with some simple cost-effective decorating (with color-coded signage based on modes) indicate that LAUS is a unified station serving all modes better? This type of strategic decorating also can start testing LAUS themes as a daily urban destination that people want to go to.


Photoshopped, this is the proposed decoration of the passageway that should be completed soon. For details of Metro’s Wayfinding and Signage project, find this photo on page 21.

As it gets the small things right, LACMTA’s Board should get a healthier fiscal perspective on long-term proposals to enlarge the passageway into a concourse. For sustainable transportation, better trumps bigger.

2. Make through-routing more economic than where it is heading

While suburban trains mostly support suburban lifestyles, greater efficiencies are key to accelerating cures for suburbia’s auto-dependency. Suburban rail Metrolink’s six lines terminate at LAUS. Along with Amtrak’s Surfliner, they are projected to double their LAUS passengers by 2040; making it the best mode to bring in suburbanites to show-off LA’s burgeoning urbanism. Run-through tracks (LACMTA’s phrase) claim to improve efficiency by 40% and shorten average travel times by 8 minutes and much more for transfers. Through-routes are absolutely essential infrastructure that is long overdue.

Last year, LACMTA proposed a comprehensive Southern California Regional Interconnect Project (SCRIP) that called for eight run-through tracks. They wanted to start construction by 2017 with budgets of $350M. But, initial bids came in high. Today, the revised Plan acknowledges only 4 tracks for the same price. This must be explained.

Despite its power and competence, LACTMA is not in a strong position to through-route completely. LACTMA’s focus is to expand LA County’s Metro, instead of distractions from the awkward 6 county collaboration running MetroLink. With no strong authority for regional collaboration and SCRIP’s scope halved, strategic marketing helps LACTMA here, too. If it rewards those lines that generate the most revenue by through-routing them first, LACTMA turns a blundering cost-overrun into a viable plan to maximize public monies while eventually completing the original eight through-routes.

This creates a dynamic in which suburbs compete to plan for more Transit-Oriented Development. The necessity to through-route — and its expense — can be turned into a contest to redevelop more compact TODs. This principle of faster pay-back seemingly exists already in LACTMA’s investments to improve train stations and TOD within LA.

Instead of trying to bury the sourness of half as many through-routes, shifting to principles of economic and fiscal sustainability could win the metropolis its biggest long-term victory against the car.

3. Propose that Amtrak build its own station.

LAUS will evolve better if it has fewer requirements imposed on it by Amtrak. Those of us who see how Amtrak shares central stations know it is not the best collaborator. Amtrak has different needs than commuters and this often creates unnecessary problems. Many examples at LAUS and especially elsewhere prove Amtrak adds unnecessarily to the complexity and costs of busy stations.

The most visible example that LAUS commuters grasp is Amtrak vehicles create flow problems for the other 99% who do not need a truck to carry their luggage.


Commonly two or more of these trucks meet Amtrak trains. This is not altogether an invasion of pedestrian space, but does not show much respect for it either. Photo by the author.

Amtrak complicates the confusion in the mixing concourse between the tunnel and historic waiting room. Amtrak parks its luggage trucks there so they can shoot down the tunnel. These trucks show, in little ways, how Amtrak throws its weight around.

To avoid sticking LAUS updates with Amtrak-related costs and delays, I suggest that enough of LAUS’s large site be given over to Amtrak to build a station to its specs. Even though Amtrak’s role in the highly contentious High Speed Rail is not known, the revised Plan puts the High Speed Rail station to the east of the East Portal; establishing that inter-city service, at least, can be separate. Good start.

If I were on LACTMA’s Board, I’d move that Amtrak decide where it wants to build its concourse based on the latest plan. If Amtrak demurs, at least it might play nice in someone else’s house.

4. Create a redevelopment structure for the station and its surrounds.

Easier said than done! It will take a decade for a suitable development organization to finance its first deals evolving LAUS from an isolated transit center into LA’s newest urban center. LAUS’ extreme isolation is unique among major stations.


The red-tiled roof is the land-marked LAUS with its exquisite Waiting Room running left to right. To its right starts the 270 pace passageway; tunneled under the north-south building (probably demolished for a bus station) and continues under the tracks to the semi-circular East Portal (currently the main bus station and larger subway entrance.) The tall building lording over the complex is the HQ for LAUS’s owner, LACMTA, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.   Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

LAUS is quasi-barricaded from its surrounds. Foremost is the ten lane Highway 101 as its southern border. Further complicating the 1/4 mile pedestrian shed is large swaths of urban desolation. Almost half of it is warehouses, train yards and a cemented river. Much of the rest has a few government buildings, seemingly plopped without more purpose than filling up land given a bad reputation by its former industrial uses. The only residential was built recently on LACMTA’s site, and many of those units will be sacrificed to the proposed bus station.

The 1/2 mile radius continues this limited mix. As a positive, this larger ped-shed includes City Hall. Its civic center park remake indicates LA is understanding how to make walkable urban areas. Also boosting its fledgling urbanity are the destinations of Chinatown to the north and Little Tokyo to the south; each being the next stop on Metro’s Gold Line. The dashed green line below is the 1/2 mile radius.


Map from Metro’s Community Linkages Study for Little Tokyo

The mile radius has more of the same: warehouses, rail yards and cemented river. Walkable grids get mangled by merger ramps from two Interstates. Residential redevelopment gets complicated by public housing projects and other under-served neighborhoods.

But adding an important positive, employment (other than government) is provided by two medical centers. More important is how Central City East (just south of Little Tokyo) is quickly gentrifying with young people who are active participants in the first generation to use transit more. Information Age workers are replacing the winos on the former Skid Row. But in sum, urbanity still is not yet healthy in the surrounds of LAUS.

Integrating LAUS can be sped-up because LA’s land use laws are changing. To improve transit ridership, Mayor Villaraigosa started experiments with ordinances to make LA more compact, particularly along corridors. He seems to have done a good enough job that the momentum of a comprehensive corridor code probably can continue without his leadership. While important in remaking LA’s picture of itself, these ordinances still only have produced more leaps of imagination than bounds into sustainable urban redevelopment. The surrounds of LAUS may be LA’s key test of its ability to leap.

Even if physical and land use obstacles are overcome, another strategic obstacle is organizational: transit agencies are cumbersome partners to private redevelopers. Despite its strengths, Metro still proves the rule and its parent, LACMTA, seems to avoid solutions. Two years ago, a Public-Private Partnership and the fad-ish “value capture” scheme were proposed during LAUS’ initial long term planning. But, both were dropped from the 2013 Master Plan. This is inauspicious… and hard to understand since LACMTA owns 45 acres — plus air rights — and influences much more that could produce a great urban center. LACMTA must set-up a practical process to develop effective public-private ventures if it expects LAUS to evolve into an urban center. If as great a businessman as Mayor Bloomberg has to face failure at Penn Station, LA’s chances seem slim without innovation.

Amidst the abundant efforts nationwide to revive central stations, integrating them into an urban fabric is a common challenge to many Sunbelt municipalities. Most know that if they do this right, other factors for transit can more easily sync. A workable framework for redeveloping economically around LAUS does much to enhance LA’s example for Sunbelt cities. But, that leadership also must develop fiscal responsibility. Maximizing the assets it has — its current station in particular — is key to minimize operating costs in a new, fiscally sustainable regime.

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

New York Penn Station: Taming the Beast by Robert Munson

[ This week Robert Munson returns to his look at North America's central train stations with a look at New York's infamous "beast" - Pennsylvania Station. He picks up after his look at the "beauty" that is Grand Central Terminal - Aaron. ]

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


Showing the grandeur of the original Penn Station (destroyed 1963), this main waiting room approximated the volume of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Solving New York’s Perennial “Penn Problem” Starts Now

Surpassing the great stations of Europe, Penn Station showed how America would lead the 20th Century. Epoch-making innovation and entrepreneurial risk built tunnels under the Hudson River and directly connected America’s main metropolis to the other commercial centers of a vast, resourceful economy that emerged via the advantages of a great rail network. Penn Station celebrated that achievement by evoking Rome’s style from that previous great Republic.

But, America’s metaphor soured. In comparing the 1910 Penn Station to the 1964 version, eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully famously wrote: “One used to enter the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

Penn Station’s road back to greatness will be long. This article provides this early step: analyze the Penn Problem frankly and suggest why current agencies cannot develop solutions. We start that step and put Penn in the context of this series by comparing its scorecard to New York’s success story.

Score: 60 (see full scorecard, with side by side comparison to GCT) – compare to Grand Central Terminal’s score of of 81.
Category: The Inexcusables


Photo by the author as he scuttles in at 11PM to Amtrak’s concourse… feeling Penn’s pain.

Grand Central shows us what happens when good stations are preserved. But if they are lost and replaced by a bad design, then updates won’t work either. Instead of the original, elegant Penn Station, commuters today get a transit rat-hole because government failed to protect a pivotal public asset. Updates to Penn’s commuter concourses and platforms since have been too little, too late, too costly and would never work well anyway. Given Penn’s inflexible design, updates could never accommodate growing commuter demand. Twice as many riders pass through Penn today than was the intended capacity of its 1964 design. Penn’s “curse” is that good money gets wasted because its updates cannot solve the core problem of poor design and poor governance.

Why such a mismatch persists in America’s largest transit metropolis is a lesson for many cities. While Penn’s scale is larger, its root cause is similar: failed transportation policy. Transit’s failed governance gets complicated by insular train operators. This historical concoction traps many central stations, particularly Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station. Un-trapping both using today’s tangled agencies will take decades of dedicated civic effort to change how transportation is organized and invested in. Have we got decades?

Penn’s problems are a New York legend perpetuated by escalating irritability. Instead of recounting those stories, this article focuses on defending its key suggestion: if a new strategy for ownership is not clarified within a few years, then a new authority must be created to resolve the Penn Problem.

The Big Picture In-Brief: Ownership Is The Core Problem

Compare this photo:


Penn’s Amtrak reception area decked-out for the holidays, photo via Flickr Photo Sharing.

with this one:


New Jersey Transit concourse at Penn Station, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

It is self-evident who owns Penn Station. Amtrak customers have a reception area, a coach-class waiting room with chairs and escalators down to platforms having a decent width. Almost one-third of passengers on the Northeast Corridor trains also qualify for the very comfortable LoungeAcela to wait, work or sleep in. While this Corridor by far is Amtrak’s most important, Amtrak still only has less than 10% of Penn’s non-subway passengers on an average weekday.


Photo taken by the author while waiting for his Long Island train. To the left are a row of perhaps two dozen fast-food stands. To the right are minimally responsive ticket agents. Trapped in the middle waiting for a mid-day track announcement, I see why New Yorkers have so much practice complaining.

For the other 90%, Penn Station treats commuter rail passengers as if there were a cattle class. NJ Transit and LIRR commuters get packed into stand-up concourses (no chairs) and anxiously await their track to be announced. Not unlike a prod, the board flashes which track and there is crush down into a narrow platform to get a seat next to someone who is not an obvious complainer.

To pile on the insults, the people whose fares and taxes will pay for the new station are the ones who suffer this daily saga. In this weird realm of disservice, why should passengers trust New York and New Jersey? Advocates for better transit must ask: what kind of “deal” are governments giving citizens to reward their doing the right thing and minimizing car usage?

To answer those questions, let us return to the point at which Penn became destined for transit hell. But, let’s make it easier to stomach by using the best analogy. Like Penn, Chicago’s Union Station primarily served inter-city travel in the first half of the 20th Century. Similar to the original Penn, Union Station’s air rights were sold hastily in the 1960s to appease Penn Central’s creditors.

Since then, both stations have had buildings above that abused the intent of air rights by scrunching the growing number of rail commuters for decades. Amtrak owns both suburban commuter stations. But because Amtrak has a national purpose, suburban systems get short shrift. Both stations, theoretically, have state agencies with power to solve these problems. Historically, no agency has proven itself.

Chicago’s often-proposed central station is the nearby West Loop Transportation Center. (Amtrak would keep its home in Union Station.) This Center could help convert outdated commuter systems to 21st Century standards that include through-routing. As with Penn, Chicago’s Center is no closer to reality… and largely for the same reason: existing governments cannot produce progress.

Consider The Proposed Penn Station Redesign

The Alliance for a New Penn Station, a joint project of NYC’s Municipal Arts Society and the Regional Plan Association, recently proposed solutions that can resolve the core problem. Entitled “Penn 2023”, the Alliance analyzes the problem well, then seeks to solve the ownership problem by proposing that Amtrak have a separate building called Penn Station South (below).

In critiquing this proposal, I count about a dozen quibbles. Most boil down to an impossible situation: Penn has too many passengers coming into too small a site and no current authority can sort out the resulting chaos of tracks and concourses. But as a positive step, the Alliance is to be commended for implicitly addressing the core problem of ownership by drawing three separate terminals and spreading the congestion.

As an outsider, I can be more explicit: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and LIRR (MTA) should all have their own station. Furthermore, the tracks should be managed by an uber-authority responsible for through-routing.

It is all that simple.

But of course, simplicity’s virtue can often be its vice. Understand the owner’s dilemma. While Amtrak’s weight is great, it can’t solve a mistake it inherited in the 1970s. At various times and planning stages, Amtrak has been in-and-out of the proposal to convert the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station (building 3 in the drawing above). Some $267 million was spent in planning and preliminary construction, about 85% paid by Uncle Sam. With no future funding source, the Moynihan proposal, again, appears stalled.

Amtrak’s solution to a nearly impossible situation also is simple: admit that its small customer share does not warrant suffering Penn’s huge headaches and, instead, should develop a station to its specifications nearby.

Amtrak should be happy. It has Uncle Sam to give it the easy way out.

Quite a separate matter is the New Jersey/New York nexus. It is all mixed up in Penn’s air rights. Madison Square Garden owns them. The Alliance sent a message last year when it convinced the City Council to limit MSG’s permit to ten more years, hence “2023” in the study’s title. Yet, MSG has a major investment and many expect MSG to fight to protect its rights. Lengthy lawsuits employing brigades of the profession’s finest……and the Penn Problem persists.

So, let’s be practical and leave aside for now any further speculation in this article of building 4 above, “A Reconstructed Penn Station.”

Next, let’s see the scope of the problems so how we, finally, can honor Senator Moynihan properly.

The above photo was taken on Labor Day 2013 during my annual trek to the U.S. Open. I compared this to the sign in 2009. Little changed of substance. Of the nine politicians, who fights for commuters? Of the seven agencies listed, who has a credible plan to fund the station?

Mayor Bloomberg, the biggest advocate for rezoning the station’s surrounds, also spent five years trying to make real estate deals pay for the station. He has been replaced by a new mayor with an agenda of redistributing wealth – and not to suburban rail commuters. Andrew Cuomo has had over three years as Governor to make this a priority fix. But, he has done little more than his predecessors who had much less power.

Three months prior to my photo, the Governor put the Port Authority in charge to restart the Moynihan conversion. Since the sign does not even acknowledge the PA as ‘de facto’ developer, it helps confirm the PA has no believable plan for this complicated real estate deal. What’s more, the PA increasingly is seen as a patronage dump that cannot fulfill its original mission of building infrastructure. This leads some observers to start calling for its breakup. Today, Penn appears to this outsider as a hot potato passed between creaky agencies, each unable to advocate a future vision.

Another clue of Penn’s ‘ad hoc’ rule comes from the green ARRA sign. Federal money paid for 85% of Phase 1; yet no agency used this free money to produce leverage for Phase 2 funding. As is true nationwide, metropolitan New York’s dependency on Uncle Sam has no future as a strategy for transit capital.

Beware The Wooden Nickel

Into this vacuum comes a new concept called “value capture” that, so far, seems to be funding part of the nearby Hudson Yards subway extension. This is at the heart of the MAS Penn proposal and offers a sign of fiscal hope. The scheme’s short explanation is transit raises the value of real estate (more true in Manhattan than elsewhere). In turn, increased building values will generate higher property taxes that the transit agency can borrow against to build now.

I am a skeptic of depending on this funding source for several reasons. First, this is the largest station in the western world and requires lots more money than a subway station. Worse for the City, it already was a struggle to get nearby landowners to agree to the value capture for a subway. It is a fair guess they will view a scheme for Penn’s rebuild as a double tax.

There also is an ominous Big Picture: value capture needs a decade-long track record of paying bondholders on-time. But, municipal bond markets are nervous about ominous clouds of pensions and insolvency nationwide.

Furthermore, squishy funding hurts the private landowners’ equation. Knowing there is not enough money to finish the suburban stations, landowners around Penn won’t invest enough either; further reducing value capture’s contribution.

Not Easy: Find A Way Out Of No Way

A credible plan must solve these big picture problems around governance and funding. Simultaneous with those changes, the transit agency cannot just put a pretty hat on top of 100 year-old platforms. Three new stations should have a complete update to 21st century transit standards that include through-routing, easy transfers, and tightly integrated mobility systems. This requires big-time money and an authority that can break transit’s old ways.

20th Century authorities cannot implement 21st Century standards. The metropolis’ polyglot of outdated authorities took over failed railroads and, now, have failed even to maintain the old system in good repair. Without money to first fix the systems New Yorkers already got, it is highly unlikely new stations will get built.

Transit also must solve its cost-overruns. New York area transit investments have been off-the-charts expensive compared to what global centers in Asia and Europe buy. For example, MTA’s East Side Access project at Grand Central was to cost $2.2 billion in the 1999 federal budget. Today, estimates cost upwards of $11 billion and will be finished as late as 2024. Worse, this exorbitant price tag does not even buy a through-route, suburbia’s track of the future.

These budget and timeline busters are multiple-decade affairs. The subway part of this same tunnel was started in the late 1960s that finally connected to its system in 2001. This spooks the public about future major projects.

Back at the Port Authority, it has made headlines with astounding cost-overruns at its post-9/11 station… along with newsy scandals such as Bridgegate. Solutions will require deeper and broader political discussion than now seen. Who leads that? Both Governors are looking for their path to the White House, while eyeing the other as a possible rival. Today has no leadership nor lasting momentum for replacing Penn.

Finding a responsible owner and funding source for the commuting stations will not get settled finally until the taxpayer agrees. Chances improve when there is a credible agency that serves riders and taxpayers alike with a whole new discipline of managing finances and timelines. That requires a new regional authority, independent of state politics.

Giving taxpayers a better deal — while necessary to get capital for transit — is not the topic of this series on defining performance standards for central stations in the sustainable era. But in future years, hopefully 2015, I will explore how regional politics is a prerequisite for sustainable transit. Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station will be case studies.

Only unprecedented collaboration of government agencies can make possible the fable’s happy day in which the Beauty (Grand Central) marries (through-routes) the former Beast (Penn transformed into her Prince.) But, a new agency will have to groom the Beast for this story to have a happy ending.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via City of Cincinnati.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle

[ In 2008 Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle took a trip to Cincinnati and was blown away - Aaron. ]


(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)

I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.

I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)

That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.

I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.

It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.

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(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)

Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.

From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.

Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.

We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.

We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.

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(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)

Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.

Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.

“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”

Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.

“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”

I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.

“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”

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(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)

We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.

“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”

When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.

“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.

“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”

“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”

“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”

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(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)

Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.

“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”

As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.

“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.

“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”

“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.

“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ‘em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”

From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)

I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ‘em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”

The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.

Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.

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(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)

The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I
gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.

I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.

That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).

We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.

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(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)

The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).

Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”

That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”

I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”

Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.

“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”

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(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)

I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.

I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.

“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”

Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.

How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.

That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.

Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Kleenex.
Dental floss.
Depends.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Paints.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Grease.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.

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(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)

What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.

“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”

And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.

And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.

“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.’”

Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.

“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”

It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.

That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.

Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.

We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.

“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”

I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”

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(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)

The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.

But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.

The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.

There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.

Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?

Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.

We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).

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(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)

Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.

In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”

And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”

This post originally appeared in Chicago Carless on September 9, 2008.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Chicago in the 1940s – In Color

A 30 minute short film about Chicago that was shot c1947 has been making the rounds bigtime in the last week or so. Someone found a print of it at an estate sale and it wasn’t previously known before. It was produced by the Chicago Board of Education (who today doesn’t seem to know anything about it) for some purpose unknown, but appears to be a promotional type film designed to sell the city. It’s very interesting to see Chicago during that era. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.


Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

The Bentonville, Arkansas Effect by Eric McAfee

[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.

But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?

If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.

My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.

My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?

Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.

The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.

The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?

Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.

It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.

The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:

Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.

These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?

The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.

Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.

So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.

However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.

So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.

Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.

The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.

If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)

The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.

The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.

By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.

Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.

The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

We Had To Destroy the City In Order To Save It


Ed Glaeser’s plan for more skyscrapers in California?

[You may recall that when I posted Daniel Hertz's take on Chicago's zoning insanity I promised a somewhat different take. Well here it is. Daniel has already posted a reply. Your reasoned thoughts pro and con are of course always welcome - Aaron. ]

As housing prices and rents soar out of control in tightly regulated cities like San Francisco and New York, many people have called for a significant loosening of zoning rules to permit greater densification. Many policies contribute to unaffordable housing, including rent control, historic districts, eminent domain abuse, and building codes, but zoning puts an absolute cap on dwelling units per acre thus is generally part of any solution to the supply problem. What’s more, as recent commentators have started to notice, even many of America’s most dense cities are predominantly zoned for single family homes, calling into question the need to dedicate so much space to a single housing typology.

For example, a web site called Better Institutions posted this map of Seattle, in which all of the yellow districts are zoned exclusively for single family homes:

The poster lets his feelings be known by using scare quotes to denote single family “character” and blaming the zoning for Seattle’s high rents.

And Daniel Hertz posted a similar map of Chicago in which the red is single family homes only and yellow is industrial space unavailable for any residential use:

Some go beyond affordability, saying that we also need to significantly increase densities in central cities in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Harvard professor Ed Glaeser wrote an article advocating this subtitled, “To save the planet, build more skyscrapers—especially in California.” He says, “A better path would be to ease restrictions in the urban cores of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. More building there would reduce average commute lengths and improve per-capita emissions” and “Similarly, limiting the height or growth of New York City skyscrapers incurs environmental costs. Building more apartments in Gotham will not only make the city more affordable; it will also reduce global warming.” He claims that, “The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.”

These complaints and the proposed solution of more dense multi-family development may be true in a technical sense, but what would carrying that out mean for people who actually live in our cities?

Some critics may disdain the character of single family districts but few of these pundits ask the question of what eliminating lower-density housing actually means to the survival of the urban middle class. Districts, like the Portage Park example Daniel Hertz gave in Chicago, are some of the last bastions of middle class family life in the city. It’s clear that some densification can be implemented without radically changing the appearance or functioning of the built environment. Allowing 2-flats and coach houses, or even the corner apartment building or townhouse development, wouldn’t ruin Portage Park. There’s no reason such things should not be allowed. But nor would they make a major dent in affordability in places where a tidal wave of global demand is washing over the city such as in San Francisco.

To materially boost the number of units in an era in a manner that moderates prices in a highly desirable place like San Francisco would require massive changes in the built environment of its neighborhoods. This would radically transform the character and nature of the city in question. If San Francisco were really covered in skyscrapers, it would cease to be San Francisco— a city of low-rise buildings framed by hills that would be obscured by high rises. There may well be the same geography on the map labeled as such, but it would be a completely different place. We would have to destroy the city in order to save it.

One person who gets that is Alex Steffan. He’s angry about prices, saying that the “criminal lack of housing is a global scandal.” He’s also honest enough to forthrightly acknowledge that a sufficient scale of new homes to bend the cost curve would fundamentally change many of our cities:

We can build some housing incrementally, without changing the skyline or cityscape, but not anything like enough. To produce enough homes to matter, fast enough, we’re going to have to fundamentally alter parts of our cities. That, of course, demands a local government willing and able to plan and permit such widespread change. It also takes an array of homebuilders doing the actual work, often in more innovative and low-cost ways, like more collaborative housing, manufactured buildings and flexible living spaces. Most of all, it takes broader public insight into how large-scale development can improve our cities.

In other words, it’s a major change in communities that requires selling the public on the idea. He believes that young people will be the agents of change here. This shows perhaps one of the signature affects such changes would have. They would displace families by eliminating their preferred housing typologies in favor of forms more amenable to predominantly younger singles or the childless for whom living in an apartment with no backyard is more likely a relief than an imposition. But it’s hard to imagine cities as places for solving the problem of climate change if they are, like San Francisco, increasingly places devoid of families with children.

Steffan also says affordable housing is a social justice issue. Yet is it really social justice to require everyone to have equal access to San Francisco, population 825,000? I think not. Especially not when America is replete with urban centers whose biggest problems are depopulation and worthless houses that you can’t give away. There are plenty of options of places for people to live; we should look at making our now failing cities more attractive to people who may like the housing and neighborhood, if not for issues such as crime and poor schools. There’s no guarantee in America that you can afford to live in the place you might most want to choose. That’s long been true of suburbanites and city dwellers alike.

Also, the willingness to fundamentally reshape cities is odd in light of the fact that such previous attempts are uniformly viewed in the urbanist community as disasters. The idea of Manhattanizing San Francisco brings to mind nothing so much as Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris, in which the historical cityscape is replaced with towers in the park.


Fundamentally altering Paris

Of course no one is actually saying to take it this far, although Glaeser’s vision gets close it. But once we enshrine the rule that a certain threshold of unaffordability means more density and building regardless of neighborhood character, it’s hard to see what the limiting principle would be. Also, high rises or even buildings above 4-5 stories in height usually require expensive construction techniques, and thus are inherently costly.

It’s true, however, that cities are not static entities. Every downtown skyscraper in America is built on a site that was once used for something else. Yet we see this densification overall as a good thing. Had Manhattan been preserved as of its pre-skyscraper era, it’s not clear the city would have benefitted.

Clearly the zoning and building regulations in our cities are often too strict. Yet the disasters of previous generations’ radical change suggests that incrementalism is a better course. By all means allow two-unit houses, corner stores with upper story apartments, etc. into currently all-single family zones. Add areas where high rises are allowed the peripheries of districts currently zoned for such; warehouse districts as well as office buildings that are not well occupied. But don’t bring out the bulldozer wholesale. Additionally, a healthy city should make sure to embrace the entire palette of housing types – including single family homes. There’s more to making cities attractive to middle class families than just cost, and things like the prospect of a backyard for the kids to play in are among them.

And given the relatively few intact and attractive urban cores in America, prices are going to continue to go up. That’s true even with radical new building. As mentioned, San Francisco only has a bit over 800,000 people. Boston and DC have only about 600,000 each. How many people can you plausibly put into these places? Realistically, not all of us who would like to live in San Francisco or lower Manhattan are going to be able to do so. That’s true no matter how many skyscrapers we build.

This post originally appeared at New Geography on February 26, 2014.

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.

I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.

Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.

A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”

There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.

But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

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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