Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Building a More Dynamic Cincinnati

This post originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 8, 2014.

Cincinnati arguably has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. So why has the region been stagnant to slow-growing for so many decades?

When you look at the stunning collection of advantages and assets of Cincinnati – its geography; the amazing dense, historic architecture (great contemporary architecture, too); top-notch cultural institutions; a large corporate presence; and so many pieces of local culture and flavor of a type that has been homogenized away in most places – it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Yet since 1970, while the U.S. has grown by nearly 52 percent in population, the Cincinnati region grew by 26 percent, only half as fast. Other than Dayton, the other surrounding metro areas have also grown about twice as fast or more than Cincinnati. Cincinnati has lagged on jobs, too.

How is this? How can Cincinnati have the best stuff, but be a growth laggard?

Part of it is that all the assets in the world don’t help you if you don’t take advantage of them. Most of these are located in Cincinnati’s delightful urban core. But Cincinnati has to some extent abandoned that core in favor of low-grade sprawl.

The city of Cincinnati has lost a big chunk of population, and its regional share dropped from about 40 percent in 1950 to only 14 percent today. By contrast, New York City is still at 45 percent regional population share today. And while it’s a slow-growing region, too, the city of New York is at an all-time high in population and is booming in many ways, such as its tech and real estate industries.

Even Hamilton County has lost population as a whole, dropping by about 120,000 since 1970. By comparison, Indianapolis’s almost identically sized Marion County gained 135,000 during the same period – this in a place with far fewer obvious assets.

What’s more, unlike its fabulous core, Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even that good for the most part. So Cincinnati has chosen to fight its battle where it has few marketplace advantages instead of leveraging its unique and compelling assets.

This has proven a demographically, economically and financially unimpressive strategy. Instead, urban Cincinnati and Hamilton County should align available financial resources to make the most out of the amazing urban environment and assets that exist there.

Meanwhile, the suburbs aren’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, so they should seek to do so on a higher-quality pattern that will be financially sustainable long-term. The problem with sprawl is often less about the environmental impacts than the fact that as they age, older suburbs that weren’t very high-income to begin with become financial albatrosses as they fill up with dead malls, aging and less market-attractive homes, legacy costs and similar issues. And unlike the high-quality classic architecture of the core, they’ve as yet proven less adaptable over the long term.

The wonderful collection of assets Cincinnati has may also have bred complacency. Another name for an asset is “the stuff we did yesterday.” But what are we building for tomorrow? What is our generation’s contribution to the pot?

Cities like Columbus that started out with much less understood in their gut that they needed to go out and create some things. They were hungrier. Cincinnati needs to recover some of that hunger and fire in the belly that motivates other places that are keenly aware of what they lack and are fighting every day to improve.

Cincinnati has also been plagued with deep and counterproductive community divisions. This includes the East Side-West Side split, city vs. suburb, three states, tea partiers vs. liberals, racial divisions, etc. This makes it harder to get things done than it should be because there’s no civic consensus. The streetcar debate makes that very clear.

Cincinnati needs to find a way to heal these wounds and build a durable consensus while leaving room for appropriate debate.

A strategy that works with, not against, the unique qualities and competitive advantages of Cincinnati; a more aggressive, hungry civic attitude; and a way to bridge community divides are three of the things that will help Cincinnati to realize the sustainable growth and prosperity it should have in light of the fantastic place that it is and the incredible assets it has.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Providence: The Suburbanization of Olneyville by Jef Nickerson

[ Providence, Rhode Island was spared some of the worst of the urban renewal disasters and has a lot of intact neighborhoods. But there have still been some not entirely positive changes in the urban fabric in others. One such neighborhood is Olneyville. As you can see in this aerial, there's an old mostly intact neighborhood commercial center at the core, though with areas of demolition. The area is also cut off by a freeway.

In the piece below Jef Nickerson discusses a proposal for a strip mall in the area that would further degrade the urban fabric. (It's near the bottom left of the photo above). This is sadly what happens in many struggling areas where a desperate city approves suburban style "redevelopment" that's actually destructive to the only things giving the neighborhood appeal in the first place.

As an aside, I believe this development is across the street from the legendary Olneyville New York System Wieners. Somewhat oddly, the term "New York System" actually means "Rhode Island style." Here's a picture of the classic, complete with cheese fries and coffee milk (like chocolate milk, but made with coffee flavored syrup - another Rhode Island classic).

- Aaron.

Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.

After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.

The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.


Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.

According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.

The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, them the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.

The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.

This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.

This post originally appeared in Greater City Providence on January 15, 2014.

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

How Homeowners Associations Stifle Expression and Sustainability by Kaid Benfield

[ Kaid Benfield is Director of Sustainable Communities for the Natural Resources Defense Council who blogs at their Switchboard site as well. I've been meaning to repost this piece in which he examines the barriers created by homeowners associations for quite some time. I'm glad to finally be able to share it with you - Aaron. ]

Eagle Pointe Homeowners Association (by: newokadoll, creative commons)

In the 1980s, I lived in a small DC condominium complex in the highly walkable Adams-Morgan neighborhood.  I was one of 14 unit owners.  Another was a fairly well-known Russian writer who had defected; the Cold War was still happening then, if not for much longer.  Alex (as I’ll call him) was a great, friendly guy, and really more a fan of American culture than a critic obsessed with Soviet politics.

I was one of the first to buy into the newly rehabbed complex; Alex was in the second group that began to fill the place out.  A couple of us tried to recruit him to join the condo board.  I’ll always treasure his bemused response:  “Hey, I didn’t leave one communist system just to join another.”

There were about 50,000 homeowners associations – including those in multifamily buildings like ours – in the US at the time.  Today there are 323,600, presiding over the homes and neighborhoods of an astounding 63.4 million Americans, Sacramento (by: beancounter/Pam, creative commons)according to data published by the Community Associations Institute.  Basically, that means in something approaching 20 percent of American homes, you literally cannot live there unless you agree by the terms of your ownership documents to submit to the rules of the governing associations.

I use the word “governing” deliberately, because that is very much what HOAs do (and what my condo board did, when I lived in Adams-Morgan).  For example, they have taxing power, setting mandatory dues that if not paid can result in the placement of a lien on your property or even foreclosure; they have regulatory authority, setting rules for everything from when you can take out the trash to what color and materials you use in your window treatments to what you can and cannot grow in your yard.  They have enforcement power, too, including the right to issue cease and desist orders and to impose financial penalties in the form of fines.  One legal observer has called the exercise of quasi-political powers by HOAs “one of the most significant privatizations of local government functions in history,” pointing out how quickly some of them move to foreclose on private homes because of dues underpayment.

In a lot of places – probably in most – it’s a sort of government-among-friends, where rules are applied and interpreted with good faith and generosity, where neighbors cooperate on upkeep, and where buildings and communities look better and function better because of it.  That’s certainly the way it was in the condo where I lived for a decade.

Olde Belhaven, Alexandria, VA (via Google Earth)

But, in others, homeowners’ associations appear to have more in common with the Soviets than just a communal process.  Writing in The Washington Post, Justin Jouvenal recently reported on a knock-down, drag-out fight over a simple political yard sign placed by a couple on their property during the 2008 election season.  The association’s grievance, apparently, was that the “Obama for President” placard was four inches taller than the association’s covenants allowed.  The scene was a lovely, 44-unit townhouse community set around a pretty green square in Alexandria, Virginia, an inner suburb of DC.

Now, in my book, requiring that the neighbors cut their grass every so often isn’t so unreasonable.  But stifling political expression because of a piddly 4-inch, inherently temporary “violation” is.  In my lawyering days, I was involved in one and only one case before the US Supreme Court:  on behalf of the Justice Department, I wrote and filed a brief siding with three jurisdictions that had banned billboards from within their borders.  In deciding a case that began with a lawsuit brought by the billboard companies, the Court practically tied itself in knots trying to come to consensus.  The nine Justices wrote or joined in five separate opinions.  A plurality of four ruled that the two states and one city involved could ban commercial billboards but not political ones.  There was enough agreement among the other opinions that it amounted to a majority ruling on that point.

Olde Belhaven, Alexandria, VA (via Google Earth)

Now, there are lots of legal distinctions between public statutory law (the billboard case) and restrictions by “voluntary” associations (the neighborhood lawn sign issue).  But I still might have advised the homeowners’ association that there could be some risks when it came to rules restricting political expression and that they might want to consider backing off on such a minor, short-term infraction before they got hit with a lawsuit they might lose.  In fact, the couple that wanted to display the sign in their yard did sue the association; it took a while, but the couple prevailed and the association lost.  And, for good measure, the court ordered the association to recompense the couple for their costs in asserting their legal rights.  The association, whose stubbornness had gotten them in way over their heads, ended up having to pay $400,000 (including its own legal fees) and went bankrupt.  The lovely green square that has served as the heart of the community is now for sale.

In some cases, HOA rules go directly against individuals who wish to follow green practices.  Two years ago, for example, a Florida woman was hit by mounting fines from her HOA simply for gardening.  On the web site Food Renegade, writer “KristenM” described the situation:

“Imagine growing a lush, organic garden full of fruit trees and raised beds featuring edible flowers and vegetables.  It’s beautiful.  And it’s in your backyard.  Your slice of heaven.  Your respite.  The place where you can get your hands dirty growing wholesome, nourishing foods for you and your family.

“One day you stroll out to your mailbox to find a letter from your HOA telling you your garden is in violation of HOA rules.  According to your deed restrictions, all fruit trees and edible plants should be grown inside a screened in patio.  You face $100/day fines for each day that you refuse to tear up your fruit trees and remove your raised beds.”

Essentially, vegetation was allowed to be planted unless it was grown for food.  And this is Florida, where there are fruit trees, in particular, all over the place.  I don’t know how that case eventually turned out, but association restrictions on gardening are not unusual

backyard vegetable garden (by: Nate Swart Photo, creative commons)

Another way that HOA rules can get in the way of sustainability is by banning outdoor clothes-drying.  The energy savings from the practice can be substantial:  electric dryers burn a full 6 percent of our home energy (second among appliances after refrigerators).  Many would also argue that the way that people have sun-dried their laundry for millennia also produces, in the right climate, a freshness that hot-air dryers can’t match.  The problem, of course, is that once most middle-class homes had acquired indoor electric dryers in the second half of the last century, visible clotheslines became a sign of poverty, something that the kinds of subdivisions that have HOAs want no part of.  Most HOA-controlled neighborhoods now ban clotheslines.

Fortunately, concerns about energy consumption and increased environmental awareness have produced a sort of backlash in the form of a “right to dry” movement.  As a result, six states – Florida, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, and Vermont – have passed laws rendering these bans void and unenforceable.  Jim Howland, who maintains a research project called Making Sustainability Legal, reports that another 13 states have solar access laws that appear to protect solar drying.

Speaking of which, you can imagine what most HOAs not bound by the laws in those 13 states think of solar panels.  On the Green blog published by The New York Times, Kate Galbraith detailed several disputes between green-minded homeowners and their associations in a 2009 story.  Galbraith added that, for solar installers, the roadblocks can be frustrating:  “John Berger, the chief executive of Standard Renewable Energy, a Houston-based firm that designs and installs solar systems for homes, said that the homeowner associations’ prohibitions had already cost him more than $1 million in business.”  That’s a shame, because there are lots of ways that solar panels can be incorporated into roof design while maintaining a high level of aesthetic appeal.

rear-facing solar panels on a single-family home in the Netherlands (by: EnvironmentBlog, creative commons)

I’ll discuss one more issue.  Consider the matter of non-edible landscaping, which HOAs guard with an iron fist to ensure uniformity.  In one example, a Florida homeowner got hit with a lawsuit for planting non-conforming vegetation that did not need irrigation, conserving water.  Kevin Spear reported the story four months ago in the Orlando Sentinel:

“A homeowner near Windermere who happens to work for Orange County’s environmental department has been sued by her neighborhood association for replacing her thirsty grass with a water-conserving landscape.

“Renee Parker’s plants attract butterflies, blossom regularly in multiple colors and have an assortment of shapes and heights. For a meandering border, she planted Argentine bahia, a grass that’s hardier than the water-craving, fertilizer-loving St. Augustine variety commonly growing in Florida yards.”

In theory, a 2009 Florida statute prohibits homeowners associations from interfering with residents who pursue “Florida-friendly” landscapes that save water.  But Spear’s article says that associations retain their authority “to approve or reject lawn and yard modifications,” and there’s ambiguity in what kinds of plants the law protects.

Meanwhile, in Arizona a homeowner was slapped with fines for planting a native habitat garden featuring Arizona wildflowers.  To the HOA, they were just “weeds,” prohibited by the rules.  A story posted on the web site of the Windstar Wildlife Institute says that the owner’s landscaping choices were lauded in the magazine Phoenix Home and Garden, which noted that the property “embraces the Sonoran Desert with a landscape rich in indigenous plants.”  The Windstar story reports that the case has drawn support from the Tucson Botanical Gardens and the Arizona Native Plant Society.  It was unsettled as of the time the story was written.

Pasco County, FL (by: Daniel Oines, creative commons)

Do these associations go too far?  Do a web search for the phrase “HOA tyranny” and you’ll get an astounding number of results.  Among the more extensive is a book-length bill of particulars called The HOA Primer, in which the writer details the horror stories at some length, saying that covenant enforcement “can become an absolute obsession.”  AlterNet has a very good story from 2007 (“The Property Cops”), written by Stan Cox, detailing how a variety of HOA and other community rules ban a range of green practices, with examples from across the country. 

I suspect – and certainly hope – that it is just a matter of time before HOAs catch up to emerging social values and become more tolerant of new practices to protect ecological values.  Maybe the biggest danger will become that the fixation with mandates will remain, but some of those mandates will become pro- rather than anti-environment.  That’s certainly better as to substance, but I’m less sure that it would be a great thing as to style.

Meanwhile, The HOA Primer cites real estate agent, consultant and author Joni Greenwalt (Homeowner Associations: A Nightmare or a Dream Come True?), for the point that the best HOA board members actually may be those who are hesitant to serve because they have full lives with work and families, but do so anyway out of a sense of duty.  They are less likely to fret about the smaller stuff or have time to go on frequent patrols searching for, say, nonconforming birdhouses.

Taking this thought into account, perhaps my Russian neighbor Alex would have made a great condo board member and we should have recruited him harder.  As I recall, he was too busy writing books and having a good time to oppress anybody.

This post originally appeared in The Switchboard on February 19, 2013. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Stopping the Cycle of Decline

My latest column is in the November issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “Stopping the Civic Decline Cycle.” In it I urge cities to get a real grip on their problems and restructure for new realities rather than simply managing an endless, painful decline cycle year after year. Sadly, facing fiscal challenges right in the face rather than kicking the can down the road and trying to survive another year has proven to be quite rare. I don’t want to claim this is some preferred solution. But cities are where they are and have to respond to reality.

Here’s an excerpt.

The cycle of municipal decline looks the same in a lot of places. People and businesses leave, which causes tax revenues and quality of place to degrade. That, in turn, leads to tax increases and service cuts, which makes more people and businesses leave. This repeats in an endless cycle as a city slowly dies.
Rather than an endless stream of crisis management, cities should instead take a realistic forward look at their civic trajectory—medium-term revenue forecasting, demographic and economic forecasting, capital asset replacement cycles, and so on—and restructure the services delivered and revenues raised in order to create a sustainable baseline that can be defended over at least the medium term. This would enable cities to provide some degree of predictability to current and prospective residents and businesses about what their tax bills and services received will be. That right there will improve the business climate by reducing uncertainty and the, often correct, belief that most cities just don’t have a handle on their problems.

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

The Tough Realities Facing Smaller Post-Industrial Cities

A couple weeks ago the Economist ran a leader and an article on the plight of smaller post-industrial cities, noting that these days the worst urban decay is found not in big cities but in small ones. They observe:

Partly, this reflects the extraordinary success of London and continuing deindustrialisation in the north of England. Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in. So too is Wolverhampton, a small city west of Birmingham, and Hull, a city in east Yorkshire.

And even with growth, the most ambitious and best-educated people will still tend to leave places like Hull. Their size, location and demographics means that they will never offer the sorts of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like.

Their editorial forthrightly embraces a policy of triage, saying “The fate of these once-confident places is sad. That so many well-intentioned people are trying so hard to save them suggests how much affection they still claim. The coalition is trying to help in its own way, by setting up ‘enterprise zones’ where taxes are low and broadband fast. But these kindly efforts are misguided. Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them.”

This same dynamic is clearly evident in the United States as well. Bigger cities have tended to weather industrial decline far better than smaller ones. There seems to be some threshold size below which it is difficult to support the infrastructure, the amenities, and the thick labor markets that attract the people and businesses in 21st century growth industries. My “Urbanophile Conjecture” heuristic suggests that you need to be a state capital with a population greater than 500,000 to be thriving. But even larger places that aren’t capitals and conventionally viewed as failures like Detroit retain powerful metro area economies and large concentrations of educated workers, especially in the suburbs. Conversely, smaller places like Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Michigan face much bleaker circumstances.

There are exceptions to the rule, including many delightful college towns or the occasional oddball like Columbus, Indiana, but for the most part smaller post-industrial cities have really struggled to reinvent themselves.

In part this is because a rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats, only some of them. As economist Michael Hicks noted, “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment, and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIF’s and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”

In short, growth actually fuels divergence because a) the growth disproportionately accrues to the places that are doing well in the first place and b) even when struggling cities can attract jobs, people earning middle class wages frequently live elsewhere. Doug Masson likened this to Jesus’ statement that “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” I think there’s a lot of evidence that for bigger cities a lot of activity is exhibiting a convergent or flattening effect. That’s why so many places today have decent startup scenes, quality food, agglomerations of talent, etc. But for smaller cities my observation is that it’s still a divergent world.

You see this on full display in central Illinois, where the town of Danville (population 33,000) and Champaign-Urbana (combined population 124,000) are only about half an hour’s drive apart on I-74. Danville is one of the bleakest towns I’ve ever visited in the Rust Belt. When your Main Street is a STROAD, you know you’re in trouble. Champaign-Urbana by contrast, is a fairly healthy community. It’s home to the main campus of the University of Illinois, seems to be reasonably thriving, has many high quality residential streets, a direct rail connection to Chicago, etc. As a college town, it’s one of those “exception” smaller places.

Anyone within reasonable driving distance with a choice would almost undoubtedly choose to live in Champaign over Danville, unless they had a family or personal connection to the latter. It’s an easy slam dunk decision. In effect, proximity to Champaign acts as kryptonite to Danville’s revitalization. Again, a rising tide only fuels this divergence.

This sort of divide between communities mirrors the divide in society as well. The question is, what approach should be taken to address these disparities? One approach is to focus on the people, and leave the places to rot. Jim Russell has noted that “people develop, not places” thus most place based economic strategies are destined to fail. This approach has also been advocated by economist Ed Glaeser, who in an article title, “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” answered his own question by saying, “probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.”

This is obviously unpalatable to policy makers of either the left or the right, as no one has yet embraced it openly. How then have the left and right responded? The response of the left seems to be what Walter Russell Mead has labeled the “blue model” solution. His basic view is that the post-war economy was based around a policy consensus he labeled the blue social model (and which Urbanophile contributor Robert Munson has simply labeled the New Deal). This involved large corporations, powerful unions, extensive industrial regulation, and an expanding safety net. Those who wish to retain the model suggest allowing divergence to continue, but raising taxes on the wealthy and successful in order to redistribute them to sustain those at the bottom of the ladder (via an expanded welfare state), who are in effect seen as lost causes in the modern global knowledge economy, though few of them will openly say it. So the idea is to invest in success, and redistribute the harvest aggressively. That’s why you see lots of left advocacy in favor of tax increases on higher income earners and against food stamp and other benefit cuts, but a paucity of ideas for how to provide the left behinds with jobs and opportunity.

Mead suggests there’s no such thing as the red social model, and perhaps he’s right in that there’s never been a national policy consensus we could label as such, but there’s certainly a red model response to current conditions and it’s called the Tea Party, or what Mead has labeled a “Red Dawn” in many places like Kansas, North Carolina, and New Mexico. This is a type of single factor determinism model. In these kinds of models, a single factor like education, transportation infrastructure, climate, etc is treated as overwhelmingly determinant in driving the economic structure and outcomes. The factor posited by the Red Dawn model is government, therefore the red model response is to slash and burn government (with the potential exception of highway spending) to lower costs, taxes, and regulatory barriers that are perceived to be holding the economy back. In other words, government is the base, and the economy and everything else is the superstructure. Fix the base and the superstructure will correct itself. That’s the theory.

Broadly speaking, these are the paths that Illinois and Indiana have followed. Chicago’s size enables it and its values to political dominate the state in the modern era. With only a rump of a Republican Party, the Democrats are free to do what they like. Conversely, in Southern influenced Indiana it is the outstate areas that are numerically superior to the successful urban regions, thus the state follows their policy preference, and Republicans overwhelmingly dominate the state so there’s little real opposition to red model policies.

What have the results been? Most obviously, Illinois is nearly bankrupt while Indiana is sitting on a AAA credit rating and a $2 billion surplus in the bank. (It has a pension deficit, but it’s manageable and there’s a funding strategy in place). Clearly Indiana has a more functional political system than Illinois, which somehow manages to remain gridlocked despite a “four horseman” style legislative system and overwhelming Democratic dominance. So score two for Indiana.

Finances aside, what have the results been? Illinois has poured massive quantities of cash into building on success, with items like the O’Hare Modernization Program and Millennium Park. The successful side of the economy, epitomized by the global city portion of Chicago, has soared to incredible heights. This is a city that earned at seat at the table of the global elite. On the other hand, the overlooked areas like much of the south and west sides of Chicago and places like Danville, are in horrific shape. The goal of allowing divergence clearly worked. However, with the state’s finances in abysmal shape, the redistribution portion did not happen. Indeed, the social safety net and basic services depended on by the rest of Illinois are being shredded. Even if you believe that it’s viable to simply support a large lumpenproletariat in perpetuity on welfare – which is doubtful – financial extremis means Illinois isn’t even able to try.

Meanwhile in Indiana, pretty much the entire state policy has been reoriented towards making the left behind areas attractive to lower wage businesses. Policies that would cater to higher end businesses in successful urban areas have been less popular. That’s not to say there’s been nothing. Gov. Pence recently agreed to subsidize a non-stop flight between Indianapolis and San Francisco to help the local tech industry, for example. And he’s supported efforts to boost the life sciences sector. But I think think it’s fair to say low costs and low taxes are the watchword, with right to work, light touch environmental regulation, mass transit skepticism, etc.

However, most of Indiana’s left behind type places have not recovered. Overall the state has retained a stubbornly high unemployment rate significantly above the US average, and, even more worrying, incomes have been declining relative to the US. Metropolitan Indianapolis, Lafayette, Bloomington, and Columbus have done reasonably well. Much of the rest of the state has continued to struggle, particularly in adding jobs with middle class wages. As the recent commentary by Brian Howey, Michael Hicks, and Doug Masson shows, Indiana retains its “Noblesville-Muncie” divides mirroring Illinois’ “Champaign-Danville” ones.

In short, the blue and the red model produced some success, albeit in different modes (think San Francisco vs. Houston, Chicago vs. Indianapolis), for the “haves” side of the equation but haven’t yet proven equal to the “have nots.” The Economist makes it clear the totaly different policy configurations of the UK haven’t made a dent in it either. Post-industrial blight in much of Europe tells a similar tale. This suggests that there are powerful macro forces at work that are extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome. It’s no surprise then that the Economist suggests giving up.

Again, that’s not likely, so what should we do? I won’t pretend to have all the answers to a very difficult question. However, I’ll suggest a few possibilities:

  • Seek to stop the civic death spiral. This means getting ahead of the decline curve by seeking to halt the cycle of people and businesses leaving, leading to revenue declines and degraded quality of place, leading in turn to to service cuts and tax increases and disinvestment, which leads to more people and businesses leaving. This involves getting ahead of decline and restructuring government to a place where you can hold a defensible position on services and taxes from which you can seek to rebuild.
  • Integrate with metropolitan economies. Rather than Muncie trying to hold Noblesville/Metro Indy at bay, or Danville the same to Champaign, closer connectivity is the key. I’ve written on this before regarding Indiana. In the short term losing the highly paid employees to a nearby municipality is a good thing. Without those living options for the managers, etc. you’d never be in play for the plant in the first place. That connection expands your labor pool, provides trade opportunities, etc. Just the property taxes from the plant is valuable, and can be used in rebuilding. Fostering these connections would require decisions that seem counter-intuitive on the short run. For example, Ball State University in Muncie should clearly expand its downtown Indianapolis presence. That isn’t necessarily taking away from Muncie. It’s building new connections and opportunities for Muncie where they don’t exist today.
  • Find a claim to fame around which to rebuild. Carl Wohlt says that every commercial district needs to be known for at least one sure thing. Similarly, what’s Danville’s sure thing? Some towns like Warsaw or Elkhart already have it and need to build on it. Others need to find one. That’s not to say one thing is the only thing you’ll ever need or that you aren’t opportunistic around potentials deals that come your way. But you have to start somewhere. Where do you put your limited available civic funds?

I’m not so naive as to think this it the complete answer. But if there’s to be a genuine attempt to rescue places, then new thinking is needed and a turnaround will take a long time. In the meantime in parallel, clearly people-centric solutions also need to be pursued, to give people the best opportunity to realize their potential and dreams in life, where ever that may take them. No city is a failure that does this for its citizens.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

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

Photo from City of Newark website

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

Photo by Robert Munson

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone

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

How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Robert Munson

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

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

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Philadelphia Center City Stations by Robert Munson

Philadelphia Market East Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/acetonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what are the economics of this corridor?

Philadelphia Suburban Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/ireneillee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Flickr/ddyates

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What Makes A Station Sustainable?

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

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

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

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

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

Station Categories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use Analysis To Overcome Obstacles Strategically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

What Detroit’s Bankruptcy Teaches America

As has long been expected, the city of Detroit has officially filed for bankruptcy.  While many will point to the sui generis nature of the city as a one-industry town with extreme racial polarization and other unique problems, Detroit’s bankruptcy in fact offers several lessons for other states and municipalities across America.

The Day of Reckoning Can Take Much Longer Than We Think to Come

What’s most surprising about Detroit’s bankruptcy is not that it happened, but how long it took to get there.  In authorizing the bankruptcy filing Gov. Rick Snyder talked about “60 years of decline.” He’s not joking. It’s been widely known that Detroit has been in trouble for a very long time.

Time Magazine ran a 1961 story called “Decline in Detroit.”  Jane Jacobs described its lack of vitality in her 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:

Researchers hunting the secrets of the social structure in a dull-gray district of Detroit came to the unexpected conclusion there was no social structure….Virtually all of Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening….Detroit today is composed of seemingly endless miles of low density failure.

Moving from urban planning to economics. She wrote in 1969’s “The Economy of Cities”:

This was the prosperous and diversifying economy from which the automobile industry emerged two decades later to produce the last of the important Detroit exports and, as it turned out, to bring the city’s economic development to a dead end.

These are both well known, but the record of troubles in Detroit even predates this, going back at least to Life Magazine’s 1942 article “Detroit Is Dynamite” which gave a prescient warning to the city just a year before 1943’s race riot.

For a city as uniquely troubled as Detroit to remain in serious decline for such an extended period of time before going bankrupt is a testament to the sheer resilience of cities. It also suggests that those predicting eminent doom for their own city unless it changes its ways are likely to end up as false prophets.

Indeed, Detroit’s day of reckoning may not even yet be fully here given that various challenges to the bankruptcy filing are expected.  The fact that Detroit has limped along for so long suggests that cities may be able to survive nearly definitely as “zombie municipalities” similar to zombie banks.  Though this may possibly end in a Greek style crisis at some point, a very lengthy existence as the undead would seem to be possible.

Decline Poisons Civic Culture and Sunders the Commonwealth

Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.

This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.

When the pie is growing, it’s easy to come to an agreement over how to divide it because everybody can get a bigger slice at the same time. But when the pie is stagnant or shrinking, zero-sum thinking takes over.  To make a sacrifice is seen to in effect allow someone else to profit at your expense. Perhaps these dynamics were present latently before, but tough times bring out the real civic character.

In Detroit’s case  everyone from public employee unions who refuse to give up any of their benefits (and will no doubt fight to deny the bankruptcy filing) to suburban towns that would rather pretend the city does not exist have played a role in setting the disaster.   With nobody willing to sacrifice for the greater good, prisoner’s dilemma logic results happen. You can see this playing out in nearly any troubled American city. By contrast, it seems to be healthier places like Denver that have managed to build stronger regional civic consensus. It’s simply easier in those places.

Instead, Detroit chased conventional wisdom approaches and fad of the month type endeavors ranging from constructing the fortress-like Renaissance Center to the People Mover to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities” program, none of which did anything but generate hype. What they all had in common is a transfusion of subsidies to the city (and taking on debt) rather than building a consensus around addressing the real issues.

America Doesn’t Learn Lessons From the Past

The last thing Detroit teaches us is that America too often doesn’t learn from its mistakes.  Detroit’s troubles have been evident for quite some time, yet it’s hard to see that many other post industrial cities have managed to carve out a different path.  Rather, they pretended that Detroit’s fall was somehow unique due to its auto industry dependence – and managed to ignore other failed cities as well – while embarking on the same turnaround strategy via conventional wisdom and silver bullets.

They have even managed to ignore failures much closer to home. Booming new suburbs can look just 5-10 miles down the road to see yesterday’s hot spot now turned into a festering mess of dead and dying malls, declining schools, increasing poverty, and falling home prices. Yet most of them are simply replicating the same pattern that is destined to fail financially over the long term in any region without either severe building restrictions or very high population growth.

Sadly, none of these augur favorably for change.  Detroit may continue to garner special international attention as a train wreck people can’t stop watching, but less spectacular slow motion civic failures seem likely to remain commonplace unless somebody finds a way to overcome these forces.

Further Reading on Detroit

I have been chronicling the story of Detroit for quite a while on this blog and the postings on Detroit have generated more readership than those for any other city. This shows the profound hold the city has on the world’s attention. Here are a few previous articles you might be interested in if you haven’t read them yet:

The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline (by Pete Saunders)
Yes There Are Grocery Stores in Detroit (by Jim Griffioen)
Detroit: Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier
The Other Side of Detroit

This post originally appeared in New Geography on July 20, 2013.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Indianapolis Liveable Streets Agenda Moves Forward

A few items hit the news recently about better transport in Indianapolis. The first is this Streetfilm featuring Mayor Ballard talking about his bicycling initiatives. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

One item highlighted is the Indy Cultural Trail, a truly unique downtown trail system that took eight miles of lanes away from cars and gave them to people in a system that includes a super high-quality separated bike path, public art, unique lighting and signage, etc. I’ve been hoping to do a story on this for some time, but don’t have photography yet. Stay tuned.

Another is an announcement of a 500 car all electric car share system based on the Paris Autolib’ program. This will be the largest all-electric cars share system in the US. It’s also the first foray into the US for this company. The system will feature 1,200 charging stations at 200 locations that are available to the public, and the city and others are looking to use it to reduce their fleet size and also to support the city’s goal of converting its entire vehicle fleet to “post-oil” technology. This is a pretty sizable system for a city like Indy, though it appears that full rollout is years away, so this is an aspirational announcement.

There’s also a bike share system that was just announced, but it’s very small and appears to only be focused on the Cultural Trail.

Of course I’d be remiss if I did not mention the huge elephant in the room here: the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. Despite these first class types of endeavors, DPW still can’t build a decent street. The streets they build in the urban core are actually worse than what a lot of suburbs are building. Both the Cultural Trail and a similar project on Georgia St. were outsourced to non-DPW designers to make them happen. Until an updated street design manual with 21st century approaches to street design is put in place, there’s no way Indy can get an overall grade of anything higher than “Incomplete” for its liveable streets agenda.

In the meantime, the Cultural Trail, car share, etc. can be celebrated and enjoyed.

Oh, I apparently missed this follow-up video that highlights the green stormwater detention and landscaping on the Cultural Trail. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

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